Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Gift of a Penny

When I was about six years old, my mother was driving my two younger brothers and me somewhere. I think we had just finished a visit to my grandparents and were returning home. Suddenly my mother was taken with a migraine and had trouble seeing. She pulled the car into the parking lot of a small grocery store and bent over the steering wheel, her eyes tightly closed and her forehead wrinkled in pain. She said that she needed a sudden infusion of sugar to give her some quick energy. At least I think this is how things were; I don’t remember exactly.

But I do remember very well that she asked me to go into the store and buy her a candy bar. She was not able to do it herself. She reached into her purse and then handed me a nickel—that’s what candy bars cost in the fall of 1954.

I swelled with pride that she had entrusted me with this errand of signal consequence. Relieving her of pain and saving the journey home had become my responsibility, mine alone, without an adult to watch over me. Clutching the nickel, I dashed out of the car and sprinted into the store. I picked out a candy bar and took it to the checker. Excitedly and proudly I set it down on the counter with the nickel beside it.

“That’ll be six cents,” the checker said.

I still remember the feeling of utter collapse that dropped my insides into ruin. I had been punctured. I had failed in my mission. A sense of shame began to wash over me.

Before the feeling of disgrace had time to grip me fully, a man behind me pushed a penny across the counter. “Here,” he said. For me it was as if a film of a collapsing building began to run backwards—everything went back to normal, and I could once again anticipate returning to the car in triumph, the prize in my hand.

I don’t remember if I thanked the man. I don’t remember if he were young or old or anything else about him. I can only see again his right hand with the forefinger extended, pushing a penny toward my nickel. Of course, he had no inkling that I was on a mission to save my mother; he could only have thought that I was a kid buying candy for himself. He could not have known the full implication of his good deed.

Even I didn’t know at the time the full implication of that deed, but I never forgot that kind act done well over half a century ago; I have brought it to my mind many, many times since. His act of spontaneous thoughtfulness and kindness to a child—being only a penny, I don’t think it can be called “generosity”—to a stranger, a little boy, changed me thoroughly, from the inside out. From that incident I learned, in a very practical way, that love of neighbor means love of stranger, and must be shown in particular actions.

As I grew older and continued to remember this incident, I grasped the reality that God can do things of immeasurable good with even the smallest of gifts. Over ten years ago, I began to remember that man in my prayers regularly, thanking God for him. In this life, he never knew that his gift of a penny had changed a life. I cannot overestimate the blessings I have received from that gift. As I look back, I realize that from that moment I have tried to be kind to children, never knowing what effects doing so could have.

Move ahead fifty years or so. About three years ago I was standing in line in a store. In front of me a teenage girl was paying for her purchase. The checker said, “You’re a penny short.”

Instantly I lit up, and I could almost literally feel myself swelling up with portentousness. Like a bolt, I was certain that my moment had come. Excitedly, almost frantically, I plunged my hand into my pocket to bring up a handful of coins. I knew that I had several pennies.

And then the checker said, “Oh, forget it.” I was stunned with dismay and struck speechless at the lost opportunity. If I’d been a bit more with it, I’d have cried out, “Wait! Wait! I’ve got a penny here! You have to take it!” And I would have told the story.

But the moment was gone. The girl said a perfunctory, “Thanks,” and walked toward the door. Emerging from my fleeting stupor, I smiled to myself ruefully. A penny in 1954 is worth twelve or thirteen cents in today’s money, I suppose. These days if we see a penny in the road or on the sidewalk we rarely stoop to pick it up, though I guess most people would pick up a dime.

Of course, it wasn’t the penny. I wanted to give where I had been given to—not to make things equal or release some kind of moral debt, but to return a favor—to treat another as I had been treated. If I had been able to get a penny out of my pocket in time, would it have changed the girl’s life as my life had been changed? Not very likely. Had I pushed a penny across the counter for her, I would have felt that I had gone “full circle” and become like the man who had blessed me so mightily and so unknowingly when I was a little boy. I would have felt deeply connected to him and been doubly blessed by his gift.

But it wasn’t necessary. I have been enormously blessed by many hundreds of people over the years of my life, and I am confident that I have been a means of blessing others in my turn. There can be no “record-keeping” of such things. I will never, ever forget, though, the first time that the lesson was impressed on me. The gift of a stranger’s penny changed the course of my life. God bless him.

P.S. Coin collectors who look closely may catch something noteworthy in the above scan of the penny.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


One of the oddest sayings of Jesus is, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37b). In context, Jesus is teaching his disciples about the Day of Judgment, with the refrain, “one will be taken, and the other left.” When he finishes his teaching his disciples ask, “Where, Lord?” Jesus answers with the enigmatic, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather.”

Umm…what does that mean? Well, I don’t know, but here’s a thought. If “the body” refers to the Church, the Body of Christ, then in this world it will always be assailed by vultures, right up to the Day of Judgment. On that day, “one will be taken, the other left,” but until that day, the Church will be under attack. And so it has been and is. The Church militant, the Church on earth, almost always “gasping for life” in a hostile world, will be surrounded by the harbingers of death, eager to rip its carcass.

It’s not a negative attitude. On the contrary, when the Church is under attack we can be pretty certain that we’re doing something important, something effective, something that bothers the attackers. The pattern is so remarkably obvious throughout Scripture and history that the wonder is not that it is so, but that the attackers just don’t get it. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, etc. etc.

During the Sudanese war (1983-2005), when government troops tried to eradicate the Christians in the south, they displaced over four million people and killed more than two million others—over a million of them Christians. And during this time, the Church grew seventeen-fold! —from 5% to 85% of the population. “Way to go, persecutors! Thanks for furthering our evangelism, as you dumbheads always have.” Okay, okay, “love your enemies” and so forth, but loving them doesn’t make them any the less dumbheads.

A few people have mentioned to me recently that they are alarmed to learn that evil has entered the Church. My answer: Duh. The household of God is always under attack. The list of examples in Scripture is too long to put into a blogpost, not to mention the list of examples from the time of the Ascension, forward. The New Testament is full of conflict bent upon the Church, from inside it as well as from outside. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” said Jesus.

I think it’s pretty cool that when Jesus said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it”, it implies that it is hell’s gates that are being assailed by the Church, and not the Church being assailed by the minions of hell.