It was Easter morning 2004; I was sitting in my home congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas. We had an interim during that time and frankly a good number of people did not much care for him. This was of no fault on his part and I would come to understand that more as I moved into ministry work. He was simply different. We held our prior minister in such high regard we might well have sainted him if UUs did that sort of thing. At any rate, it was Easter morning and I was there because church was just something I did each week, a holdover from my evangelical upbringing. I expected to be bored, as I had in years past with UU Easter services. I certainly did not expect that I would be encountering the Holy.
Marc, our interim, asked what it meant to be real. He talked about the literal versus the literate interpretation of the bible. What did it mean to be real? What made a story real and what was more real, the history or the telling of a story laid out in a life well lived?
“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.
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.”
I look back now and consider this day the first day of a long personal resurrection or rebirth. I had no idea who I was becoming, like a caterpillar in a cocoon, no clue I was about to get my wings. I read the above passage now and I know it as the most true, absolute real story I have ever been told. “When a child loves you for a long, long time… then you become real”.
I had no idea a decade ago I would ever work with children, become a professional religious educator, or talk about my work and life in terms of ministry and spiritual calling. The work I do with children and youth makes me more real. I’ve seen one of our volunteers weep when talking about the trust a small child gives you when you work with them in RE classes. I know that trust as love. Through that love I’ve been able to heal old hurts from my own childhood. I’ve been able to become real.
“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.”
Marc’s sermon made space in my heart for receiving the power of story, including stories from the Bible, as spiritual teaching. I started remembering some of my favorite biblical stories from childhood. What was there beyond the fantastical I felt as a child and the rejection of the bible as the literal word of God I experienced in my teen years? I found there was layer after layer of richness in the stories I grew up with and I could now mine them for wisdom. While it doesn’t have the meaning it might have for Christians, I took Jesus back into my heart. I remembered the way I loved him as a child and the love I felt from him too. I remembered the Jesus I knew as a child: teacher, unconditional love, peace, friend.
I still don’t consider myself a Christian but I have come to understand one need not be a Christian to take in the beauty and wisdom found in scripture just as one need not be a Buddhist to take in the wisdom of a koan.
I’m still on my long journey of becoming real. I’m much closer now that I’ve made peace around some of my early religious wounding and have found my ministry in the work of religious education. By the time my hair has all been loved off I expect I will have become real, which is to say become so seated in the core of who I am that I know my own worth and I move from a place of love for myself and others. May it be so for us all.