There are very few things left from my childhood. No favorite books, no trinkets, no furniture. Just an old stuffed Pluto dog, a la the Disney comics, whom I named Poppa.

When he was brand new, Poppa Pluto had silky golden fur and flashing black eyes. But today he is completely bald, and his body bears the battle scars of many childhood fights with my sister. Beheaded in an early battle, he had his neck repaired by my mom, who used black embroidery thread to mend him.

As a child, I slept every night with Poppa and toted him along wherever I went. One aunt predicted that I would one day carry the old dog down the aisle when I married.

Actually, she wasn’t too far from the mark: Although he wasn’t in church that day, Poppa Pluto went on the honeymoon. Since then, he’s accompanied my husband and me on various moves during the 28 years of our marriage.

Today Poppa perches in the rocking chair in my study along with an assortment of other fuzzy beasts that friends have given me over the years: a pig, a cat, a moose, a turtle and a rather dapper stuffed chicken.

When my goddaughter comes over to have lunch with me, we often play with the animals. She usually chooses the chicken, moose and turtle as her favorites. Maybe because he doesn’t look very appealing, Poppa rarely has been carried into the living room to take part in our created scenarios featuring the various animals.

One day, though, as she was selecting animals from the chair, I picked up Poppa and offered him to her. She shot him a curious glance, no doubt taking in the baldness, the stitches, and his many battle scars.

“What happened to him?” she asked.

I explained that he had been involved in many skirmishes between my sister and me when we were little children. “He’s very old,” I added.

To my great joy, the little girl needed no further prompting to include him in the games that day. It seems she’s already learning in school that Jesus wants us to love “the least of these.”  For a little girl, this means inviting someone to play even if he looks very different from the crowd.

And here’s the best part: Before long, she had declared Poppa a wise old pooch–and even invented a voice for him with a distinguished British accent.

Fortunately, God’s love for us doesn’t hinge on the way we look. We needn’t get surgical repairs done for him to cherish us. And even a little girl knows that friendship and love don’t depend on externals. Real love means accepting people on their own terms, even if they’re scarred, bald and very old, like Poppa.

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