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Best sellers, best givers

My husband and I took a one-day trip on his bike a couple of weeks ago. We stopped at a garage sale just down the road, and I bought a novel by a Famous Christian Author, or F.C.A. Lo, how the mighty have fallen. A best-seller for a quarter. I’ve never read any of this F.C.A.’s books, but I’ve read reviews. Some people love his writing. Some people hate it. I can’t evaluate his whole body of work by reading only one of his books, but it’s a start.

We hit a second garage sale a little farther into the hills. This one had a whole bookcase full of Reader’s Digest condensed books and a couple dozen hardcovers with fancy bindings that led me to believe they were part of a “classics and semi-classics you have to read before you die” kind of book club. One dollar each. I picked up Les Miserables, To Kill a Mockingbird, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and one by Graham Greene, but its title escapes me at the moment. I put them in the bag on the back of the bike.

We rode farther into the mountains, and I started thinking about the Famous Christian Author’s book for a quarter and the classics in hardcover for a buck. The F.C.A.’s book isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It’s merely popular Christian fiction. Nobody will remember it in ten or fifteen years. Each classic cost a mere 75 cents more, at garage sale prices, but they won’t be so easily forgotten. What makes the difference? Craft? Theme? Some magic ingredient?

From there, with my thoughts floating gently along as they do when we’re riding, I pondered the cheesy merchandise that’s sold in typical Christian bookstores. Some of those stores stock more junk than books. You know what I’m talking about: plaques, T-shirts, jewelry, etc., all emblazoned with Bible verses or fish or crosses. What’s the motivation for selling those items? Do the people who design and produce it have an honest desire to get the name of Jesus out there, or do they only want to make money? Maybe it’s a mixture. Business is business, after all. I hope to sell my novels one day, which means making a few bucks, but I also hope to give my stories to the Lord as love offerings.

By this time, we were riding through the rugged mountains of Rabun County. My great-great-grandmother was born there in 18-something. Every time we ride through that area, I imagine her and her husband eking out a living somewhere in those hills before they moved to the promised land of California. He was a minister; she died after lingering for years with injuries suffered when she was lassoed and dragged behind a horse by a drunken man to whom she had just given a drink of water. If that was one of her love offerings, it was a costly one.

We hit a construction zone where the road was being widened. On my right stood a tiny house that had once stood far back from the road. Now the road is nearly to its front porch. A long gash of red clay slashed through what had once been lawn, and the little old house stood there like an island of the past, holding out against the tides of progress that are washing against its shores.

In the yard stood a cross. I only caught a glimpse, but it looked like it might have been made of a chickenwire frame, five or six feet tall, with neat, square corners. The framework had been decorated with—what? I had only seconds to see it. Artificial flowers? I think so, but I’m not sure. There seemed to be little white lights, too, but they weren’t lit in the bright afternoon sun. I also caught a glimpse of blue and pink hydrangeas blooming around the house. Then we were past it, but the image was imprinted on my mind: a gash of orange dirt, the bright yellow equipment that had made the gash, orange construction-zone signs and cones, bright hydrangeas, and a fluffy pastel cross standing in the yard.

The cynical side of me sees the tackiness of it. The cheesiness. The other side of me pictures a sweet old man with arthritic hands, weaving the silk flowers onto the framework of a cross . . . why? I don’t know. Let’s call it a love offering.

We rode on, through parts of the Nantahala Wilderness, through corners of North and South Carolina and back into Georgia. Everywhere, we saw amazing beauty. Huge vistas of green and blue mountains. Wild rivers. Bright wildflowers. Sunlit fields. Man-made beauty can’t compete with God-made beauty. It just can’t. But we were born to create.

My thoughts kept going back to the flowery cross and to the books in the trunk behind me, one example of popular Christian fiction and a handful of classics. I can’t see the hearts of any of those creators. I know what I like and what I don’t like, and I can sometimes discern the quality of craft and take a wild guess about what is destined to be a classic and what is not, but I can’t discern what is a cheap offering and what is a costly labor of love.

Maybe my hypothetical old guy with the arthritic hands has been recorded as one of the best givers in the annals of heaven, along with the widow and her mite. It’s not my call. I can only keep working on my own offerings.

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