by Heather Webster
(a sermon offered to our Bishop and EfM students at the 2011 EfM Graduation service for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey)
One day an EfM classmate presented “What’s REAL?” from The Velveteen Rabbit our Theological Reflection. This immediately struck a chord with me. I had listened to the audio book with my children dozens of times, yet had never stopped to really consider what that phrase “What’s Real?” meant to me. So I eagerly jumped into the discussion. Four years later, the question of “What’s REAL?” stands out as the ideal expression of my experience in EfM.
For those of you who don’t know the story, let me give you some background. Margery Williams’ story concerns a stuffed animal given to a boy one Christmas morning. Since he stuck out of the boy’s stocking, the rabbit was the first toy the boy loved that Christmas. But as the other presents were opened, the rabbit was soon forgotten.
The rabbit remained forgotten on the toy shelf for a long time. It was sad and lonely, and felt inferior next to the flashy mechanical toys. The mechanical toys claimed to be real because they were noisy and could move. This made the Velveteen Rabbit wonder what it meant to be “Real”. Thankfully the old, wise Skin/Leather Horse shared his wisdom with the Velveteen Rabbit.
“Real isn’t how you’re made,” said the Leather 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.…”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time…. 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.”
I see becoming “Real” as the process of growing and maturing in one’s faith. In this story and in my life, I recognize several stages of maturity. We begin in the material world of show & action, then we learn about God, and finally we develop a faith of the heart.
The story of The Velveteen Rabbit is the spiritual autobiography of a stuffed rabbit made of sawdust and velveteen. His life, like each of ours, is a journey of spiritual maturation marked by epiphanies. Looking at the defining moments for the Velveteen Rabbit may resonate with your story.
The rabbit’s first epiphany was about the material world. In the material world, flashy mechanical toys pretend to be real by their actions and outer appearance. But the Velveteen Rabbit learns that “Real isn’t how you are made”—sawdust & velveteen or metal & buzzers.
The second epiphany comes when the boy and the stuffed rabbit spend so much time together that the boy proclaims that the Velveteen Rabbit isn’t a toy but’s REAL. “When the little Rabbit heard that, he was happy, for he knew what the Leather Horse had said was true at last….he was no longer a toy. He was Real. The Boy himself had said it.”
The third epiphany and the last step in becoming real, occurs when some field rabbits challenge him. “He doesn’t smell right! He isn’t a rabbit at all! He isn’t real!” The Velveteen Rabbit protests: “I am Real! I am Real! The Boy said so!”
And in response, a magic fairy appears and offers to him into a field rabbit. But this confuses him, “Wasn’t I Real before?” the Velveteen Rabbit asks. The fairy replies, “You were Real to the Boy, because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to everyone.” By knowing love and God in our hearts, we, like the Velveteen Rabbit, are born anew.
To me, becoming “Real” means growing in faith, into relationship with God, and into the love of Christ. EfM helped me see God at work in my life, and find God in my heart.
For the Velveteen Rabbit, becoming Real required patience, endurance, heartache, and longing. This is no different than our journey of faith, or the stories of the people in the Bible, or the journey of the disciples. Learning to trust God, to obey God, and to love God is a life-long process of becoming Real.
Becoming “Real” is what EfM helps me do. Through study of the Bible, of history, and of my life, EfM has helped transform my faith from head-knowledge to heart-knowledge. And it enabled me become new—from a person doing things for God to a person trusting God. And in relationship with God, I am discovering what it meant to be “Real.”