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. She was my sister Barbie’s favorite doll.
She hadn’t always looked like this. She had been a personally selected Christmas gift by a cherished aunt who had traveled to a great department store in faraway Chicago to find her. Her face and hands were made of some kind of rubber or plastic so that they looked real, but her body was stuffed with rags to feel soft and squeezable, like a real baby. When my aunt looked in the display window at Marshall Fields and found Pandy, she knew she had found something very good.
When Pandy was young and a looker, Barbie loved her. She loved her with a love that was too strong for Pandy’s own good. When Barbie went to bed at night, Pandy lay next to her. When Barbie had lunch, Pandy ate beside her at the table. When Barbie could get away with it, Pandy took a bath with her. Barbie’s love for that doll was, from Pandy’s point of view, pretty nearly a fatal attraction.
By the time I knew Pandy, 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 her days of great beauty.
Other dolls came and went. Pandy was family. Love Barbie, love her rag doll. It was a package deal.
Once we took a vacation from our home in Rockford, Illinois, to Canada. We had returned almost all the way home when we realized at the Illinois border that Pandy had not come back with us. She had remained behind at the hotel in Canada.
No other option was thinkable. My father turned the car around and we drove from Illinois all the way back to Canada. We were a devoted family. 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 passed, and my sister grew up. She outgrew Pandy. She traded her in for a boyfriend named Andy (w
ho, oddly enough,was even less attractive than the doll Pandy).
Pandy had not been much of a bargain for a long while, and by now the only logical thing left to do was to toss her out. But this my mother could not bring herself to do. She held Pandy one last time, wrapped her with exquisite care in some tissue, placed her in a box, and stored her in the attic for twenty years.
When I was growing up I had all kinds of casual playthings and stuffed animals. My mother didn’t save any of them. But she saved Pandy. Want to guess why? (When I was younger I thought it was perhaps because my mother loved my bratty little sister more than she loved me.)
The nature of my sister’s love is what made Pandy so valuable. Barbie loved that little doll with the kind of love that made the doll precious to anyone who loved Barbie. All those tears and hugs and secrets got mixed in with the rags somehow. If you loved Barbie, you just naturally loved Pandy too.
More years passed. My sister got married (not to Andy) and moved far away. She had three children, the last of whom was a little girl named Courtney, who soon reached the age where she wanted a doll.
No other option was thinkable. Barbie went back to Rockford, back to the attic, and dragged out the box. By this time, though, Pandy was more rag than doll.
So my sister took her to a doll hospital in California (there really is such a place) and had her go through reconstr
uctive surgery. Pandy was given a facelift or liposuction or whatever it is that they do for dolls, until after thirty years Pandy became once ag
ain as beautiful on the outside as she had always been in the eyes of the one who loved her. I’m not sure she looked any better to Barbie, but now it was possible for others to view what Barbie had always seen in her.
When Pandy was young, Barbie loved her. She celebrated her beauty. When Pandy was old and ragged, Barbie loved her still. Now she did not simply love Pandy because Pandy was beautiful, she loved her with a kind of love that made Pandy beautiful.
More years passed. My sister’s nest will soon be emptied. Courtney is a teenager now, preparing for young womanhood; Andy Jr. is already on the phone.
And Pandy? Pandy’s getting ready for another box.
THERE ARE TWO TRUTHS about human beings that matter deeply. We are all of us rag dolls. Flawed and wounded, broken and bent. Ever since the Fall, every member of the human race has lived on the ragged edge. Partly our raggedness is something that happens to us. Our genes may set us up for certain weaknesses. Our parents may let us down when we need them most. But that’s not the whole story. We each make our own deposits into the ragged account of the human race. We choose to deceive when the truth begs to be spoken. We grumble when a little generous praise is called for. We deliberately betray when we’re bound by oaths of loyalty.
Like a splash of ink in a glass of water, this raggedness permeates our whole being. Our words and thoughts are never entirely free of it. We are rag dolls, all right.
But we are God’s rag dolls. He knows all about our raggedness, and he loves us anyhow. Our raggedness is no longer the most important thing about us.
John Ortberg, Love beyond Reason: Moving God’s Love from Your Head to Your Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).
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