I remember the very first time I ever received a gift from a boy. I was in the seventh grade. He was a year older, a smart, quiet type. I had always had very little interest in boys, and considered them to be mysterious and weird and slightly gross. But, somehow in the seventh grade, note writing became an oddly nuanced art form that I gladly participated in. He sent me notes via his friends or mine, and I replied, and this is how we communicated in our stunted way for several weeks. Despite the fact that we never, ever spoke to each other or even looked at each other as far as I could tell (if he was looking at me, I wouldn’t know it because I was too busy NOT looking at him), we were considered a couple by everyone in both grades, and I felt extremely awkward and also thrilled about it.
It was near the end of the school year, and the seventh and eighth graders took a field trip together. Naturally, my “boyfriend” and I didn’t sit near each other on the bus, nor did we acknowledge each other in any way during the day. But, as evening fell we stopped at a pizza buffet. Our parents had armed us with extra money for the video game room, and our junior high selves descended on that poor the pizza place like a plague. After an hour or so, our teachers began trying to round everyone up and shoo us outside to the buses. That’s when the whispering started.
Everyone on the trip was murmuring about how my silent other half was spending all of his quarters at the claw machine to try and win a prize for me. The girls were squealing with delight. The boys were cheering him on in his claw machine manliness.
Finally, it got to a point where every single kid was on the bus except for my boy and one of his buddies. I was slouched down in my seat, somehow humiliated by how everyone was literally waiting to see what he would come up with. Then, he ran out of the pizza joint with something in his hand. He jumped on the bus with his friend close behind, and when he plopped down in his seat, he tossed something over several bus seats. It landed directly in my lap.
It was a silky red stuffed heart trimmed in white lace. And, etched on the front in white were the words, I love you.
I was mortified. I counted the seconds until the rattling bus finally pulled up to the school, where I ran to my mother’s car and burst into tears as soon as I had the door safely closed behind me.
An experience that probably would have had other 7th grade girls giggling with delight had me sobbing in the backseat. I’m sure my parents wondered what in the world was wrong with me. But, mommmmm! I must’ve blubbered, He gave me a heaaaarrrrt! As if that sweet gesture from an awkward twelve year old boy should cause you to cry for days.
I didn’t want the heart, but not because it was cheap or because it was literally thrown at me. I didn’t want it, and I cried and cried over it for one reason: because it said I love you on it. Frankly, it somehow felt awful get an I-love-you message from someone who didn’t even speak to me. He had good intentions. He just wanted to do something nice for me. And, maybe he was pushed to do so by a crowd of hormonally imbalanced preteens. From the outside it looked to them like the perfect romantic move. But, to me, it just felt embarrassing because I knew that the reality of our relationship was that we were acquaintances at best. It just didn’t mean anything.
I know. Hopefully my parents told me to lighten up at some point.
But, maybe they didn’t. Because today I have been lamenting over the ways that some in Christianity tend to be a lot like that well-meaning eighth grade boy. In an effort to fit somewhat comfortably into the culture, we call to a lost and dying world and ask them to come to nothing more than a cut-rate, silky red stuffed heart with I love you scrawled on it. We present a cheap imitation of the very heart of Christ. Like the serpent, we whisper from our pulpits, Did God really say that? No, no, no. It was just a prejudice of the time period. That doesn’t apply anymore. You will not surely die.
We stand in our “safe” spot nestled happily inside a culture that hates God’s word, and we toss a counterfeit Christianity toward a hopeless world. And we wonder why it feels all wrong to people when it lands in their laps. There is no real love in lies. There is no care in offering a Christianity that expects nothing, that is designed to sit pretty on a shelf someplace. Real love, real Christian living is a call to die every single day. It’s the truth spoken over tables and with arms wound round one another, holding each other up because living real Christianity, facing our very real sin problem, is hard. And, it demands more than a vague notion of who God is.
True Christianity is no dime-a-dozen claw machine token. It’s tearing out the very heart inside you and replacing it with the burning, living heart of Jesus Christ Himself. One day, one moment at a time. Cheap Christianity is nothing at all but talk. It’s a meaningless I love you flung into a universe that is desperate for real love.
I kept that red lace-trimmed heart in a shoe box with ticket stubs and lucky pennies and other tokens of my younger days. I suppose it felt like the kind of thing I should hang onto. But, just a few years after I bawled in the backseat of my mother’s car, I found myself standing next to an old Chevy Blazer listening to a boy, my closest friend in the world, say I love you. And, I knew he meant it. I’m not sure what happened to that sweet first token of affection that flew over bus seats one May afternoon. The one that traumatized me. But, like all meaningless things, it faded away with no fanfare at all.
Plenty of false gospels have come and gone. Cling to Christ. Trust His word. And, know that when He speaks His I love you into your heart, it changes everything. New life is free. And, it requires the surrender of everything you are and everything you have. Anything less is just a silky imitation of the real deal.