When Bryan Chapell was eight years old, his father took him out in the woods behind his house to teach him how to use one of those old-timey two-person saws. They practiced using the saw by cutting through some fallen trees. They happened to cut into a small log that had a rotten core. When the saw finished going through it, the round piece of wood fell off. That’s when Bryan noticed that the rotten part inside looked like a horse’s head. Inspiration struck! He had a great idea for a gift for his dad. So, when his father wasn’t looking, Bryan grabbed that round piece of wood and stuffed it inside his jacket.
When Bryan got home, he took the rotten log that looked like a horse’s head, and attached it to a short piece of two-by-four. Thus, he now had a horse head and horse body! He then went out in his yard and found some sticks, which he glued on either end of the two-by-four. He now had a horse head, body, and four legs. Bryan then found some twine and glued it onto the end of the two-by-four opposite the head. He now had a horse head, body, four legs, and tail. Oh, but he wasn’t done yet!
Bryan then found a dozen or so nails and hammered them partway, two inches apart, into the side two-by-four. Also, as an eight-year-old kid, you have to imagine that they were all crooked. Bryan then wrapped the whole thing in butcher block paper and went to give it to his father. When Bryan’s dad took off the wrapping, he smiled and did what any good parent would do. He said, “Oh wow, Buddy! Thank you so much! This is really great! Uh, what is it?” “It’s a horse-head tie rack!” Bryan exclaimed, “A tie rack that looks like a horse!” “Of course, it is!” his father said as he gave him a big hug. He then hung the tie rack up on his closet wall, where he used it for years and years.
When Bryan first gave that rotten-log-horse-head tie rack to his father, he believed it was a beautiful and helpful thing. In his mind, it was a work of art worthy of being displayed in the Louvre in Paris. But as Bryan got older, he realized that his tie rack was not the fantastic piece of art that he had originally imagined. From being objectively beautiful and objectively practical, it was, in fact, ugly and barely usable. Of the ten or so nails sticking out of it, only a few were at an angle that they could support a tie without it falling off. However, his father received and used that gift not because of its inherent goodness, but out of love for his child.
It’s often hard to wrap our minds around God’s love of all people: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ted Bundy, Mother Theresa and Vladimir Putin, You and the jerk that cut you off on your way home from work. Yes, it’s hard to comprehend the fact that while you’re doing your best to live right, to help others, to make our world a better, more habitable place for all of God’s children, God’s love can feel less like the gift that it truly is, and more like payment for services rendered.
But if we, like Bryan, step back, and take a hard look at all the things we do that made us more deserving of God’s love than others, we begin to recognize how imperfect our actions are. And yet, like a good father, God receives those imperfect gifts of ours and uses them as building blocks for the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Which is to say, God’s love is not something that we earn by virtue of the majestically carved teak-wood stallions that we lay at God’s feet in the form of worship and service. Rather, God’s love is a gift to us that works in and through our lives despite the decaying, rotten wooden horse-head tie racks we keep pitching God’s way. Thank God for that!