She sat at the back; a lone figure amongst the passion and exuberance of that African church service … women in their brightly coloured dresses, singing and dancing as they brought their offerings to the Lord.
She couldn’t dance. It was clear as she rose slowly and struggled to the altar that her body was wracked with pain. She pulled out a knotted handkerchief and fumbled to untie it, her arthritic fingers refusing to hurry. Finally she retrieved a single copper coin, held it for a moment or two before placing it on the altar and inching her way back to her seat.
Nik Ripkin* was present that day. Now thirty years later he says, “I can still see that old woman in my mind’s eye today. I recall the way she limped, and the difficulty she had unknotting her handkerchief. I remember the shock I felt after learning about her sacrifice”.
“What she had given was a British halfpenny. It was her life’s savings and retirement fund. It was all that she had. What she did not know was that this coin was taken out of circulation in 1967. It had no value. It could buy nothing. Knotted in a handkerchief, stored in the front of her blouse, this coin had measured her hope for the future.
Still, she gave it all to Jesus.”
In fact I often struggle with the whole concept of giving wholeheartedly. It’s what I want to do, what I endeavour to do, but over and over again I find my desire sabotaged by feelings I desperately don’t want … expectations, disappointment, even resentment and sometimes a sense of injustice. They creep in uninvited and it's a monumental battle to refuse to let them rob me of the joy of giving. Sometimes I feel like the Apostle Paul when he says, “I can will it, but I can’t do it”.
Why is it so hard to give wanting nothing in return… no thanks, no appreciation, not even justice, just giving with an open heart. I think the problem is that sometimes the gift is more about me than about the gift. That’s certainly not my conscious motivation but at some level I want to be valued and appreciated for who I am and what I do but that effectively undermines my gift of love.
It feels so paltry alongside the British halfpenny placed on the altar … a gift of inconceivable love … the sort of love God demonstrated in the giving of his Son. It was undeserved and unconditional love, the sort of love I long to be able to give freely from my heart.
At Christmas especially, gift giving can so easily become another thing to fit into our hectic lives, an obligation, a tradition or a stress as we try to decide what to give the person who has everything. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking something has gone terribly wrong.
The incarnation came wrapped in obscurity and the simplicity of a manger and yet as we celebrate the greatest gift ever given, it’s easy to get caught up in the materialistic extravaganza that the world has created. It’s easy to lose sight of the sacrifice that cost both Father and Son. Does the shock of that sacrifice still fill us with awe and wonder, or have we become anaesthetised by the wrapping and the glitter of this thing we call Christmas?
The widow’s halfpenny reminded me that true giving is a sacrifice, a sacrifice of myself for another, a gift of great love … the sort of love demonstrated in a manger one night in the little town of Bethlehem.
*Nik Ripkin and his wife Ruth, with 3 children, served for over 32 years sharing Christ across Malawi & South Africa, they moved to Nairobi, Kenya to begin work among the Somali people. Along with their their teams they served throughout the Horn of Africa within famine and war zones; resettling refugees, providing famine relief, and operating mobile medical clinics.