Friday, October 24, 2008

Wemmicks, Hellfire, and Little Children

Last night at bedtime, I read to my son the lyrical allegory told by Max Lucado in the beautifully illustrated children’s book, “You are Special.” For those unfamiliar with the story, it runs along the following lines.

Punchinello, a wooden man, lives in a village of wooden people. These wooden people are called Wemmicks, and all of them were carved by the same craftsman, a man named Eli who lives in his workshop on a hill looking down on the village. The Wemmicks are all in the habit of putting stickers on each other: gold stars on those who impress them with their good looks or talents, dots on those who fall short, who are scratched or clumsy or awkward. Punchinello is one of the latter. He’ s covered in dots.

But one day he meets a Wemmick who has neither stars nor dots on her; and when he asks her why, she smiles and tell him that the stickers don’t stick on her because she visits Eli every day. And so Punchinello goes to see his maker. Eli is delighted by Punchinello’s visit, and offers him a warm welcome, as well as words of wisdom: What the other Wemmicks think of Punchinello doesn’t matter. What matters is that Eli loves Punchinello just the way he is, without conditions or qualifications. The stickers, Eli says, only stick if they matter to you. And once Punchinello is secure in Eli’s love, they won’t matter at all. Punchinello hears, and believes. And a dot falls to the ground.

I tried to tell my son once that this is story about how divine love isn’t conditioned on our achievements, and that we shouldn’t be obsessed with what other people think about us. After I finished, he looked at me with a puzzled face and told me that, no, this was a story about wooden people and a wood carver. He likes the story a lot, but the concept of a parable still escapes him.

But the message contained in the story matters to me. And part of what matters to me is what this Christian parable doesn’t say.

In this story, Eli doesn’t have a furnace where he's seen tossing the screaming bodies of those Wemmicks who delight a bit too much in putting dots on their fellows. He doesn’t tell Punchinello that, should Punchinello fail to believe Eli’s assurances of love, Punchinello will be cast into the furnace himself. Eli doesn’t tell Punchinello that all Wemmicks, because they are limited creatures, really deserve endless anguish of the most horrible kind, but that Eli in his mercy has decided to spare those—and only those—who wander up to his workshop as Punchinello has done. Those who wander with all sincerity up to a different house on the hill—and there are several, each occupied by someone who claims to be the Wemmicks’ maker—will be dealt with harshly and decisively. Eli is a jealous maker, after all, and won’t put up with his Wemmicks making that kind of mistake. In the story, Eli doesn’t say, “I love you just the way you are, because that’s how I made you…unless you’re gay. If you’re gay, that’s not my doing. It’s your fault, and you’re a vile sinner who will burn in my furnace unless you repent.”

I can assure you that, were any of these elements part of the story, I wouldn’t be reading it to my children at bedtime. After all, I wouldn’t want them to have nightmares. “You Are Special” is a popular children’s story among Christians of every denomination, including those that believe unrepentant gays and devout Hindus will burn in hell. And I doubt that the story would be nearly as popular, even among these denominations, if the story had any of the dreadful elements listed above. Why? Because people in general--even most of those who attend hell-obsessed churches--don't want their children to have nightmares.

Why do so many Christians insist on telling stories to other adults that they would never tell their children? Perhaps we have misunderstood Jesus’ meaning when he is reported to say, in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” The kingdom of heaven belongs to children, to those we’d never tell the horrible tales we dare tell our peers. The kingdom of heaven belongs to fragile souls who need reassurance and unconditional love. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persistently testing boundaries, breaking rules, violating etiquette, those who are naïve and selfish, whose favorite words are “mine” and “unfair,” who throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, but who are precious even so in their parents’ eyes, loved fiercely and unconditionally, and who need stories of hope, not stories of fear.

The kingdom of heaven belongs, in short, to all of us.

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