Years ago my employer summoned all the managers from across the country to corporate headquarters. The company housed every manager in a ‘dual occupancy’ hotel room, partly to save money and partly to encourage the managers to form friendships. The man assigned to my room was pleasant and we immediately fell into easy conversation. It wasn’t long before we were sharing our personal histories. Places we lived, family stories from the past, all quickly exchanged back and forth. He confessed to being a pastor previously and once he knew I would not be offended by his ‘job history,’ he started telling me stories of his service to a tiny, mid-America, farming community.
One of those stories is burned on my heart.
The preacher wove for me a tale only a clergyman could. Before he finished relating the experience, I possessed a vivid picture of a tiny, upper story, one-room, widow’s apartment.
In my mind’s eye the bare wood-planked floor was painted light grey. Large pane windows let in plenty of light, interrupted only by the wooden squares and the leaded glass which distorted everything seen outside. The refrigerator was a white Frigidaire icebox with the quintessential massive chrome handle. The sink next to the ‘four burner’ stove boasted rust stains. The bed, a single mattress nestled on a black steel-tube frame. The door to the washroom, a massive four panel piece, hung in a frame that was obviously out of square. The only color in the room was the intricately assembled quilt neatly laid over the bed and the basket full of mending next to a creaky rocking chair.
The remaining few items in the room were neatly stored away, everything tidy except for an out-of-place stuffed woolen sock hanged by a single nail on the door jamb.
The former pastor described the gentle, arthritic, woman with such clarity I could smell the lingering country ham and eggs from her breakfast that morning. He shared that she was poor, desperately poor. She made her ‘living’ by repairing socks. Local farmers paid her $0.50 per pair to have her mend the holes for them.
He then narrated for me what he thought was the point of his tale, her generous piety.
“After I prayed with her, I gathered my things and said my goodbyes. When I got to the door, she called out to me.”
“Reverend,” she said to me, “would you bring me that sock before you leave?”
“Uh, sure, if you want.” I unhooked the sock from the nail. It was really heavy and I used both hands to carry it back across the room. The woman put her hand on the toe and looked me in the eye.
“Reverend, this sock is my tithe and I want you to take it. Every time I get paid for darnin,’ I drop a nickel in this sock so I can give thanks to God for taking care of me.”
The man looked me in the face, tears welling in his eyes. I knew that he remembered the experience with great emotion. “Have you ever heard of such devotion to Christ?” he asked me. “She who had nothing, gave, and gave generously.”
“That is really impressive,” I admitted. And then I asked, “What happened to the nickels?”
“What do you mean?” bewilderment full on his face.
“What did you do with the nickels?” I said, perhaps speaking more slowly than I intended.
“I put them in the church offering,” bewilderment shifting to annoyance.
“Why didn’t you give the nickels back to her, or take them to the church and combine them with other nickels to help take care of her?”
“That was God’s money,” he yelled, face immediately red.
“True,” I responded, “and don’t you think that is just the kind of thing God would want you to do?”
I don’t look back on that day with any sort of fondness or pride. The man never spoke to me again. I am sure I should have handled the conversation differently. I wish I had. The point remains, however, that giving the nickels back or combining them with other nickels to warm and feed and clothe the woman was exactly the kind of thing God would do with ‘His money.’
At the time, I had not the slightest inclination I would ever recount this story as a pastor. That one moment in time, however, seared a conviction deep inside me. I believe that gifts to the Church should be carefully deployed to reflect God’s generosity toward those whom He loves.
That is why Main Street is a ‘Sieve church’ and should always be so.