The Common Good

Stuffed Cows and the Self-Imposed Cost of Free Grace

Cow image by smereka /Shutterstock.com
Cow image by smereka /Shutterstock.com

Each of us is our own worst enemy at one time or another. My eight-year-old son, Mattias, takes himself to the mat more often, and more violently, than most.

My wife and I recently accepted a call to pastor a historic church in downtown Portland. When we told the kids, Mattias – my beloved resident Aspie – would go from unhinged excitement one moment, followed by tearful preemptive mourning the next. Kids like Mattias tend to have more dramatic mood swings than average, and pressure just amplifies the swings.

We took a trip to meet the congregation as an opportunity to show the kids around and sell them on the idea of their new home. The beach is a little more than an hour from Portland, so we took them out to the coast for lunch one afternoon. After searching for sand dollars for half an hour under an unforgiving canopy of clouds, we all agreed that a visit to the arcade on the main drag would be a welcome relief from the cool ocean wind.

Remember the thing I said about Mattias’ swings being accentuated by pressure? That includes positive pressure like, say, the sensory input of an arcade. He started off manic, skitting back and forth giddily between machines, while spending nothing. He finally settled on an old bingo machine, where you try to roll balls along a platform into holes to spell the letters B-I-N-G-O in a straight line. To his credit, especially given his aroused state, he pulled it off, and the machine spat out a voucher good for ninety-nine prize coupons.

In a moment of ecstasy-inspired generosity, he turned to a younger girl watching next to him and handed her the ticket. “Here you go!’ he beamed. The girl offered him a wide, toothy grin in return and dashed off to show her parents.

No sooner had she disappeared into the crowd when the gravity of his actions hit him. His eyes widened and smile fell into a twist of despair. “What have I done?!” He began to wail. “I want it back. Let’s go find her and get it back!”

When we explained that, once given, it’s not exactly cool to request a refund, he melted down. The fit, which included near vomit-inducing screams and crying, lasted about an hour. He simply couldn’t get his mind around the idea that, although he probably made that girl’s week, he had to let go of the idea of whatever it was he could have gotten for himself with the tickets. Based on the array of swag behind the counter, it would have probably included some Chinese finger cuffs, a whoopie cushion or some other crap he would forget about under the car seat by the next day.

But in that moment, whatever it was had become the center of his little universe, and it was gone. Lost forever.

He had a similar freakout the following week back home when we went to a local pizza joint for a family night. Once again there was an arcade. You’d think I’d start recognizing a pattern here, but I’m a slow learner. Anyway, Mattias quickly blew all of his money on a crane game, trying in vain to score a stuffed cow which he hadn’t even realized he wanted so badly before someone put it behind glass and made it nearly impossible to get.

He came back to the table, shrouded in defeat. Shoulders slumped, face long, he was the picture of pity. Then, of course, an older boy stepped up to the machine and started going for the same stupid stuffed cow. Mattias rushed to his side just in time to watch the bovine treasure get plucked from its stronghold and dropped into the chute.

The older kid, who had watched Mattias from a distance try to win the cow, turned and try to hand the toy to him.

“Oh,” Mattias said with genuine surprise, “thanks, but I can’t.” The boy gestured toward him again, to which Mattias raised his hands in surrender.

“Buddy,” I said, he’s trying to give you the thing you wanted so badly a minute ago. Why don’t you take it?”

“I can’t he said,” looking a little baffled. “It’s his.”

“I think you should take it man.”

“No,” he came back to the table. “It’s not mine.”

And then reality set in. By the time we got out of the parking lot, Mattias was in such a twist that I was flashing back to the coastline, only days before. He sputtered, gagged and screamed about his regret in not receiving the toy cow. Why, oh why, must fate be so cruel? Why must one’s judgment be so clouded in the very moment of decision?

Something like that anyway. The tirade lated all the way home, up to his room and well into an early bedtime, absent of bedtime stories or even teeth-brushing. It was a disaster.

It was remarkable to me, with a little bit of healthy distance, how similar the two situations ended up being. Though in one, the fit was about mourning the loss of some ideal that might have been (but probably not), and the other was regret over the inability to accept something freely offered.

And we wonder why people struggle with the idea of unconditional grace.

It reminds me of the giveaways we’ve done over the years at Milagro, our church in southern Colorado. each month, we’d offer a free car wash and lunch, give away free turkeys at Thanksgiving or hold a garage sale where we accept no money. But despite our insistence, pople would try palming us cash. Some folks at the car washes were so unwilling to accept the free gift that they’d shove money out their window as they drove off.

This may seem like a benign gesture, but it points to a stark deficit in our sense of self worth. In his book, “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller actually says the refusal to accept a freely given gift is rooted in pride. The idea that we can and should earn all that is given to us is a prideful flaw of the human condition. It’s a thorn in our side; one that we seem intent on twisting ever deeper, despite God’s longing for its removal.

There will be other bingo games and stuffed cows. But I hurt for my son when I see him wrestling so fiercely with his own self-confected demons. I have my own, though I’m a little better at faking it after forty years. Sometimes it seems the best I can offer is to struggle alongside him and remember my own moments of lost opportunity when the next fit comes along.

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting — PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date — set to hit book stores everywhere on April 1, 2012.

Cow image by smereka /Shutterstock.com

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