God’s Rag Dolls

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

15.  Salvation

“Her name was Pandy.  She had lost a good deal of her hair, one of her arms was missing, and generally speaking, she’d had the stuffing knocked out of her.” 

That’s how author and pastor John Ortberg begins the story of his sister Barbie’s favorite doll, which he recounts in his book Love Beyond Reason.

Though it would seem a lock that Barbie should have showered her greatest love on a Barbie doll, it was Pandy, whose chief interior component was soft, squeezable rags, who received the most profound expressions of Barbie’s affection.

“Her love for that doll was, from Pandy’s point of view, nearly a fatal attraction.”  Over the years Pandy ended up crushed in bed, propped up on the table at mealtime, and as often as Barbie could pull it off, in the tub at bath-time.

Ortberg writes, “She was not a particularly attractive doll.  In fact, to tell the truth she was a mess.  She was no longer a very valuable doll; I’m not sure we could have given her away.  But for reasons that no one could ever quite figure out, in the way that kids sometimes do, my sister Barbie loved that little rag doll still.  She loved her as strongly in the days of Pandy’s raggedness as she ever had in the days of great beauty.

“Other dolls came and went.  Pandy was family.  Love Barbie, love her rag doll.  It was a package deal.” 

The Ortbergs once left their home in Rockford, Illinois, to take a vacation in Canada.  They had driven almost all the way back when they realized that Pandy was not in the car.  She was no doubt still at the hotel in Canada.  “No other option was thinkable,” John writes.  His father turned the car around and they drove from the Illinois border all the way back to Ontario. 

‘We were a devoted family,” he reflects.  “Not a particularly bright family, perhaps, but devoted.  We rushed into the hotel and checked with the desk clerk in the lobby – no Pandy.  We ran back up to our room – no Pandy.  We ran downstairs and found the laundry room – Pandy was there, wrapped up in the sheets, about to be washed to death. 

“The measure of my sister’s love for that doll was that she would travel all the way to a distant country to save her.”

The years went by and Barbie grew up.  Along the way she outgrew Pandy.  She exchanged her for a boyfriend named Andy (who, as John puts it, “was even less attractive than Pandy”).

But that wasn’t the end of Pandy’s story.  Ultimately she was shipped to a doll hospital in California – there really is such a place – to restore some of her original glamour.  Renewed and reborn following reconstructive surgery, she was placed into the hands of an eager new generation. 

Pandy’s journey illustrates one of the most used and abused words in the entire Christian vocabulary: salvation.      

“Salvation,” particularly amongst Protestants, has all too often become shorthand for a single, eternity-determining transaction.  If you just (and here you can fill in the blank according to your own church tradition) accept Jesus into your heart, walk the aisle, pray a simple prayer, cross the line of church membership, believe the right doctrines, speak in tongues, or take some other crucial step, then you can joyfully check the box that says you’ve done what God has asked you to do, and go to bed knowing that you’re on your way to heaven when you die. 

Theologian Dallas Willard calls this the phenomenon of “vampire Christians.”  He cites the person who says, “Jesus, what I really need is just a little bit of your blood, shed for me on the cross.  Now, if you’ll just let me get back to my own life, I’ll see you when I reach the next world.  Then we can really get to know each other.”

There are many reasons to applaud decisive first steps of faith.  But they are just first steps.  In the New Testament, the word “salvation” means much more than just “being saved.”  Secure in the arms of God, salvation connotes the never-ending process of becoming whole – allowing God to do reconstructive surgery on our attitudes, our motivations, and our character. 

Many people are surprised to learn that Good Friday and Easter are part and parcel of the original Christmas Story.  But it’s impossible to read the accounts of Jesus’ birth without seeing previews of his extraordinary Final Weekend.

The priest Zechariah blesses his infant son, who will be John the Baptist, declaring that he will “give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).    The wise old man Simeon, holding the eight-day-old Jesus, declares, “[Lord], my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30).  Just to look upon Jesus was to glimpse God’s plan to rescue the world.  The angel tells Joseph that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  The rest of the book of Matthew is essentially the story of how Jesus was able to accomplish that.

John Ortberg, meanwhile, suggests there are three things we can learn from Pandy.

First, we are all rag dolls.  To one degree or another, life has beaten the stuffing out of us.  We’ve all been hurt, and we’ve done our share of hurting others.  We’ve taken risks we should have avoided, and played it safe when we should have risked everything. 

As the prophet Isaiah put it 2700 years ago, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”  Even on our best days, our status doesn’t rise much higher than Pandy’s.  There’s a raggedness about all of us.

But here’s the second thing we need to know:  We are God’s rag dolls.  We are deeply loved even though we are not beautiful.  We remain priceless and irreplaceable persons in the eyes of our Father in heaven.    

Third, God loves us so much he won’t let us remain rag dolls.  Our raggedness must be transformed.

Salvation concerns the healing of the whole person.  It begins with a decision, continues through a lifetime of discipleship, and is completed when we finally stand face to face with the Lord.

Along the way, we regularly need to go somewhere for reconstructive surgery. 

As Ortberg points out, there really is such a place.  It’s called the cross. 

And God himself went there first.