My youngest son has a teddy called “Sweaky”.
Sweaky is a mouse — although, if you ever saw it, you’d be right to point out that it looks more like a rat. But don’t do that around my son; he’d be quick in putting you right on the matter and highly offended at your inability to classify stuffed animals.
The thing is, this mouse doesn’t look like he used to.
When we first brought Sweaky home, it was bright white and its stuffing was proportioned evenly through its body.
Now, however, its head is permanently cocked to one side due to consistent cuddles. And even though Sweaky has gone through two or three major re-stuffing surgeries to put it right, his innards are once again finding themselves squeezed into all the wrong places; he’s slimmer round his waist (almost empty of stuffing), swollen in his head, and is plump within his front legs and derrière.
As for his white coat, it’s now worn and dappled in different tones of grey. There’s not a single trace of white fur to be seen. The daily contact with my son’s skin, sweat, tears and saliva (as well as cold mucus when he has been ill) has stained this mouse forever; his appearance will never be the same again.
But this is the kind of staining that I don’t want to wash away with detergent and mask beneath a fragrance of lavender. These stains are sacred.
He’s covered with the odour of affection; dyed with love; baptised in relationship. As a result, when I pick Sweaky up, he smells like my son; my boy is present in his material.
This stuffed toy entered our home as a clone, a manufactured replication that resembled all the others that were formed in mass production. Now though, this toy is one in a million, unique … irreplaceable.
I would even say priceless!
And yet, Sweaky’s pricelessness isn’t located in, or dependent on anything that he contributes or possesses. If you saw this mouse lying around, you wouldn’t spot anything valuable with your eyes; you’d be tempted to pick him up and throw him in the trash. His value, worth and “esteem” solely find their source in the heart of my seven year old son.
All Sweaky does — the only thing a stuffed animal can do — is display my son’s love.
And I assure you, Sweaky looks loved. Sweaky stinks of love. Sweaky is the perfect expression of the affection of a child.
Like my little boy’s stuffed mouse, our worth isn’t found in ourselves either. We may try to do things to get people to like us and love us, but maybe this thinking is backwards?
The idea of “Self” has become something of an idol in our modern culture; it’s were we seek for hope and redemption. Maybe we’ve become too obsessed with discovering ourselves and revealing our “real self” to the world; feeling that we don’t exist if we cannot answer the question of “who am I?” in some deep and meaningful way that finds its source in ourselves first and others second (or last, or even never)?
We expend time and energy trying to unearth our inner beauty, maybe even trying to paint ourselves beautiful. But we can only ever truly discover who we are in communion with others.
Our worth can never be truly found within ourselves. The source of our beloved-ness will always be located in the one who loves us. We find ourselves in another.
This is true of human relationships, and it’s true also of our relationship with God.
What if our primary pursuit in life isn’t to discover who we are in some individualist, isolated exploration of our self? What if our pursuit should instead be focussed on revealing the one who already loves us?
As a Christian, I believe that our worth, and our identity, finds its source in the heart of an extraordinary creator God who already loves us, who has given himself for us, and who longs for us to carry the fragrance and flavour of his love. This is a love given by grace; a love that is entirely independent of whatever we bring. A love so pure that it isn’t strengthened by our contribution: it just is. This is the kind of love we’ve all been looking for.
And yet, even we Christians can wrestle against this love. It’s like our desire for self-sought self-awareness pollutes our ability to embrace something we feel we haven’t earned. We seek to make ourselves someone in order to be something to someone else. This objectification of ourselves causes us to push back at real unconditional love.
And so, we try and be to make God love us.
We try and do in order to be worthy of love.
I think the singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini observes something intrinsic about human nature when he says, “We find gods and religion, to paint us with salvation”* [Italics mine].
The truth is harder than we can bear to except; it’s not about us finding at all, but about us being found.
If we’re not careful, the meaning of our faith can be warped if our Christianity becomes an exercise in discovering ourselves through our own efforts. If all we ever learn at church, or in our private devotions are “life-hacks” and “tips for getting closer to God”, then maybe we’ve missed the whole story of scripture; a story that isn’t about mankind’s pursuit of God, but God’s pursuit of humanity whilst mankind was fixated on itself.
Unlike us, my son’s stuffed toy isn’t self-aware, of course. It doesn’t ponder its meaning or psychoanalyse itself in order to figure out who or what it is. It’s just a stuffed toy; an inanimate object, an unconscious collaboration of fabric. But, in our house, Sweaky is still very much an identity; he’ll always be someone and not just something to my son. Sweaky is animated within the imaginative love of my child.
Sweaky is, because my son loves.
We are, because God loves.
Therefore, our call is not so much about becoming lovable, as it is about being loved and expressing that love. It’s about reciprocating the heart of the one that first loved us. When we begin to explore the divine source of our beloved-ness, instead of trying to beautify ourselves, then our self begins to melt and meld with the identity of the one who loves us. Like Sweaky, we become alive in this love and truly begin to carry the image, the presence of God. God seeps into us, and our material becomes permeated with the incense of divine delight.
We become sacred objects, not through self improvement, but through surrender.
Like my son’s stuffed toy, we are to look loved. We are to be dappled with the beauty of God; stained by his affection. We are to carry the aroma of God.
Or, to paraphrase the New Testament writer John; we manifest love, because we are loved (1 John 4:9-12, 19).
These stains are sacred precisely because they speak of the one who loves us, and not just of ourselves.
*From the track Iron Sky, from the album Caustic Love.
Tristan Sherwin is the author of Love: Expressed – Now Available