“The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it. (“The Velveteen Rabbit”)
“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 of you and a stick-out handle?” (Ibid)
“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.” (Ibid)
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. (Ibid)
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.” (Ibid)
“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.” (Ibid)
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. (Ibid)
This excerpt comes from Margery Williams’ 1922 story of The Velveteen Rabbit and it serves as a modern-day parable in teaching us how to deal honestly with ourselves and compassionately with the world around us.
And if we don’t deal honestly with ourselves, children often give us a fresh dose of honesty. Pat Shirley, our office manager, said that her five-year-old grandson said to her recently, “Bubby, you’re just old and slow like a snail.”
I think he believes his Bubba is real.
The Skin Horse served as the Master Teacher and helped the Rabbit transcend the selfish world of the toy nursery where toys jostled for positions of importance and carried around inflated egos.
Real to them meant acting superior like the disjointed lion who pretended to be king of the toy jungle and like the boat whose rigging resembled the real thing. Some of the toys thought they were real just because they were expensive.
What makes you real? Is it the clothes you wear, the car you drive, your last name, your reputation, or your popularity? Is it the way you look, how many friends you have, or is it something deeper?
Jesus was once invited over to eat at the home of Simon the Pharisee, a man of great status among the Jewish people. Jesus accepted invitations from the rich and poor, the well established and those that society had cast aside
Now I have learned in my years of being a pastor that not all who invites you to eat does so because they appreciate my ministry. Just because someone else picks up the tab doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost to the meal.
I’ve had some enjoyable meals and good conversation end with a complaint or a jab. The meal was really a chance to soften the blow. So when an invitation comes out of the blue, I sometimes wonder, “Is this meal just about two friends meeting for lunch or is there a complaint coming? What’s this meeting really all about?”
Jesus did not arrive at Simon’s house under any pretense that Simon was a member of his fan club and if there were any doubt about that, when he arrived, he was not treated with any respect with which guests were customarily treated.
Jesus was not greeted with a kiss. His head was not anointed with oil and neither were his feet washed. With none of the customary greetings given, this was the equivalent of rudeness. Nevertheless, Jesus reclined at the table with Simon.
In doing so, Jesus demonstrated that he was always willing to have fellowship and engage in dialogue with those who opposed him ideologically and theologically.
The Pharisee in the story is a lot like the toys in Margery Williams’ nursery that put on airs. Throughout the gospels, Simon and those of his religious body are presented as people who felt the need to draw attention to themselves through their lengthy prayers, the way they dressed in public, and how they drew attention to themselves when they gave their offering in the temple.
They were the upper crust of the Jewish society, both in education and in their wealth. They also had a lot of power among the people, which they used to their advantage.
Unfortunately, they lost touch with the common people, something wealth and privilege often does
Research has shown that the higher our socioeconomic status, the more difficult it is for us to have empathy for others. This could be because people of higher socioeconomic status do not have as much need to connect with, rely on, or cooperate with others. As the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots, so does the empathy gap. (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition)
Perhaps this is the reason so many of our Washington politicians are out of touch with Americans. Most don’t have a clue what it feels like to be one paycheck away from being in the food stamp line or what it feels like to be in the food stamp line, but then again, neither do many of us.
We become like the Pharisee when we have a blanket response for people we believe are beneath us: “If you knew what kind of persons they are you would respond to them in a different way. You wouldn’t waste your money trying to help them.”
The wisdom of the Skin Horse to the Rabbit is that we become real when we are loved.
When we risk loving so we will be loved, that’s when we risk being wounded. Not all pain, but some pain from relationships is the testimony that we were willing to risk being hurt.
We don’t hurt deeply unless we love deeply. However, if we avoid loving deeply in order to avoid pain, we will be very lonely and we will not discover what it means to be real.
We don’t become real if we build hedges around our lives in order to keep ourselves from experiencing any pain. We end up feeling pain anyway because we find the pain of missed opportunities, the pain of isolation, the pain of superficial relationships, and the pain of never having found our true selves.
When we run from pain at all cost, our relationships remain superficial.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine, thank you. How are you?
“Fine. Thank you very much.”
Superficial. Do you see how painless that is?
And yet, we can pass by that person and think, “If you really knew how I was today, would you care?”
“If you really knew how I was today you would freak out.”
“If you really knew how I was today you would wonder how I got out of bed.”
While we rarely respond like that, those are real responses.
If we want something more, if we want to be real, we have to find the right people to be honest with and risk telling them something significant about our lives.
We then risk discovering whether or not a person really cares about what we have shared with him or her. If we trust that person with something personal, we might be betrayed. We might be ignored. We might be ridiculed. That would be painful. However, we might also be loved. We might grow into more than we are. We might discover something new about ourselves. We might discover joy. We might discover a totally new way to live. Either way, we would be moving toward a more honest life, like the Skin Horse. It’s the way to become real.
When the woman quietly came in during the meal Jesus was having with the Pharisee and began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, Simon didn’t have to say anything in order for Jesus to know what he was thinking. His disapproval was written all over his face and expressed in his body language.
The difference between this woman’s expression of love to Jesus and Simon’s lack of it couldn’t have been more real.
Jesus could have avoided the conversation altogether, but if he had, this meal and his conversation with Simon would have been superficial. Jesus didn’t live like that. He does not like superficial. Jesus wants real.
We are not real either when we avoid confronting people when we know they are playing games with us, or when we realize they are trying to play us for fools.
Jesus could have avoided the honesty of the moment with Simon but he didn’t. His words to him were loving, but direct. Here, Jesus teaches loving confrontation.
Jesus confronted Simon with his lack of empathy for this woman and for hiding his real self from Jesus.
We often avoid this kind of conversation because we find it unpleasant, but not having this conversation means we are not being real with others either.
The only way Simon was going to become real was for someone like Jesus to confront him with how he’d elevated himself so far up the ladder of his faith system that he could not see how he had anything in common with this sinful woman. Because he continued to see himself as a man who had it all together, he would not show Jesus his real self and allow Jesus to love him.
Remember, the Skin Horse said we become real when we are really, really loved.
This woman knew that Jesus had loved her and she was so filled with gratitude for his love that she came to demonstrate her love to him in the one way she knew how. She gave the gift to Jesus that Simon had refused Him when He entered his home. She wet His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair and kissed them over and over.
This woman came as one who carried the pain of her sins in her heart. She came to Jesus in humility. She accepted that she was a sinner. She knew what others knew of her and thought of her. In coming to Jesus, bowing before him, this woman said to Jesus, “You are real. You are the one who can deliver me from the sins of my past.”
She did not pretend to be anyone that she was not. She came to Jesus just as she was.
If the fragrance of honesty could spread through a congregation like that, with people’s pride falling away, with people not pretending with each other or with God, then real revival would take place.
Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you.”
When we come to God and take off all of our important titles, all our positions, set aside all of our awards; we realize that before Him we are all sinners and we all need Jesus’ forgiving love, that’s a sweet-smelling fragrance to God.
If Jesus were to sit across from you at lunch today, would you pretend with him? Would you leave without confessing to him what’s going on in your marriage, in your family, between you and friends? Would you be real enough to tell him about the gossip you’ve told, the jealousy you hold, the refusal to associate with certain people, or the way you pretend to be one person in one setting but you are someone else in another setting?
Would you be a Simon?
Or would you be real? Would you let Jesus see you as you really are?
Let me remind you, every day that you live and every time you come into the presence of God in his house, the Lord reads you like a book. He knows your heart just as sure as He knew the heart of Simon.
He already knows whether you are putting on airs or whether you are being real. Some of the others here may know it, too. But God always knows.
Notice, Jesus said these words only to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” Simon did not hear those words.
Is it time for you to come to Jesus today and be real? It is time for you to break open a sweet-smelling ointment and bless the Lord and say, “Jesus, thank you for loving me for who I am.”
All Jesus wants is for you to be honest with yourself and with Him. Come to Him just as you are. Get right with Him and live a faith journey that is real.