At the very first “show and tell” of my kindergarten career, I was faced with a moment of decision. Seated in a circle, one by one we offered our classmates our name and our favorite color. Within moments, it was clear there was an unwritten rule emerging around that circle. Without exception, all of the girls were declaring unanimously that “pink” and/or “purple” was their favorite. I was new to the idea of classmates and wanted these people beside me to be my friends. But I didn’t like either of these colors. Getting more and more anxious with each passing declaration, I decided to tell the truth. “Orange and green,” I avowed incompatibly only to be met with giggles from boys and girls alike. Somehow the embarrassing spectacle only sealed my affection for the obviously unloved, underdog colors.
So when I found the pitiable orange plastic day lilies in the tiny green velvet flowerpot that summer, I knew I had to buy them. My five-year-old eyes saw the beauty in the rejected knickknack, lost on a table full of junk, bearing a tag marked twenty-five cents at a garage sale. When I got them home, I dusted off the hard plastic petals, proudly wrapped a ribbon around the pot, and presented the find triumphantly as a gift to my dad.
Twenty years later, cleaning out the belongings of my father after he had passed away, I found the unsightly plastic flora still perched upon his desk. Looking at the tacky flowers, covered again with dust, still bearing the small ribbon, I recalled the joy of finding the orange treasure, the excitement in handing over twenty-five cents to claim it as my own, and the hard decision I made to give it away. Brushing my fingers over the green velvet pot, I recalled the pleased expression on my dad’s face as he placed it on his desk and told me he would keep it there always. And then I remembered a detail in adulthood that the eyes of the child overlooked: The quarter that purchased these flowers was his own.
Christianity is often thought of as a set of principles that people struggle to follow, working their way into God’s favor by offering tokens of self-denial and obedience. Even Christians who profess a far bigger story sometimes live as if this is the reality. But such a story looks at God as we might look at a gumball machine or a bank. If the prize we seek is God, we cannot earn our way to the thing we have our eye on—no matter how many tokens we might come up with. For the shiny quarters we proudly offer, belong, in fact, to God.
In the Christian imagination, every faculty we have—from our ability to think or move to our ability to praise or seek Father, Son, and Spirit—is given to us by a God who wants to be known. As the apostle Paul declared among the idols of Mars Hill, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”(1) We are embedded in God’s creation; we are creatures within God’s story enabled by the Spirit to see and know and love, to respond in gratitude to the God who reaches toward us first.
As such, we cannot possibly strive our way into God’s presence, for we cannot give the maker of heaven and earth anything that is not in a sense already God’s own. “It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.'” The tattered gifts of faith and obedience we offer in sacrifice were purchased with God’s own flesh and blood. By God’s love we are enabled to respond in love. In a sonnet by Malcolm Guite this giving dynamic of loss and gain is beautifully clear:
See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.(2)
At the time, the thought didn’t strike me at all: I borrowed a quarter from my dad to buy him a present. Technically, he bought himself an ugly vintage dust-collector. But it was nonetheless a five year-old’s sacrifice of love, one he held on to all his life. How much more so God the Father treasures his children’s sacrifice of praise, obedience, love, and faith—our very efforts forged in the enabling love of the self-giving Son.
(1) Acts 17:24-25.
(2) Malcolm Guite, Stations of the Cross, Stations X-XII, malcolmguite.wordpress.com.