CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter
The following story was written several years ago by the wonderful Fred Skaggs, my Academy of Parish Clergy colleague, a retired Baptist pastor in Virginia. It’s a little longer than the usual posts here, but you are older than anyone else, so you have a longer attention span…
My Bread Is Coming Back
A day in a pastor’s education
Fred R. Skaggs
He was big and black as the ace of spades, Melvin was, but his heart was bigger and stood out like a star sapphire in a five and ten cents store.
The ninety four year old father of one of my church members was hospitalized for a serious heart condition and a host of other problems that attach themselves to ninety four-year-old people. His room mate was Melvin, the man with the big heart. In the South most ninety four year old men grew up to see black people as something less than their equal, to be candid about it, and this one was no exception. His family was uneasy about how he might react to a black man as his room mate. But their anxiety was in vain. In no time at all, Melvin had won his friendship, and they became fast friends in the days ahead.
My parishioner, the daughter of this old man, called me one day to tell me that Melvin was in dire financial straits because he had been unable to work due to a severely damaged heart, high blood pressure, etc. The word was that he was going to have his electricity cut off for nonpayment. She asked if there was anything the church could do to help Melvin. The Social Security office had approved him for assistance, but it would take several months to get that going. She and her family had helped with some food, but now he needed cash to keep his utilities on. I called a few of my people, and they responded generously.
It was December 23rd. It seemed like such an appropriate time to be doing something like this as I made my way the fifteen miles to his home in another county. Every mile of the way some things were working in my own mind. Seventeen years before, at this very time of the year, I had had a traumatic experience trying to provide some "Christmas" for my own children. I've never really gotten over it, and it makes me feel so good to reach out to the genuinely needy person at Christmas. It always brings a blessing to give where it's truly needed, but I had no idea of the blessing that was in store for me.
I knocked on the door so excited at what I had to share that I could hardly contain myself. Melvin came to the door slowly. Circulation problems in his right leg made it difficult to move rapidly, but then he had plenty of time. He wasn't going anywhere, and this knock just might be the utility man to cut off his electricity.
Melvin met me at the door all smiles. He greeted me and remembered me from my visits at the hospital. I said, "Melvin, what are you smiling so about?" He said, "Just rejoicin' in the Lord for so many things He's done for me." He went on to explain that some neighbors had brought some food to him and, shaking his head in obvious joy, said, 'The Laud teks care of His chillun." Pausing to invite me to be seated, he asked me the most impertinent question I have ever been asked. He said, "What can I do for you?"
"What can I do for you?" My soul and body! I felt like saying, "You don't understand! I'm going to do something for you. I've got the check here in my pocket to prove it." But before this day was over, Melvin was to teach me at gut-level what I professed already to know at a head level, namely, that money can look awfully small in the face of priceless traits of Christian character.
"Oh, I just wanted to come by and do some sharing with you."
His countenance changed and quickly asked, "Mr. Ayers is not worse, is he?" I assured him that his ninety four-year-old friend was doing well--better than he was, as a matter of fact. He looked relieved. The small talk continued, and I used every leading question I knew to try to get him to open up and talk about his own needs, but not a word.
Finally, I said, "Melvin, I understand that you're having some financial problems. Would you like to share them with me?" He answered, "Yes, sir! I am, but there's a lot of folks worse off than I am.” He told me about the Social Security check, the waiting period, and a few other bureaucratic delays. "I just gotta make it that long, and everything's gonna be all right." He paused. "And the Lord's gonna work it out some how. I don't know how yet, but He's gonna do it; he always does."
I simply can't explain the elation I felt to know that I was there for that expressed purpose--to be an instrument of God's grace and mercy. I wanted to fairly shout out, "Yes, He is, Melvin, and I've got a $150 check in my pocket to get things started," but I contained my enthusiasm a little longer. He said, 'The only problem I've got right now is my electricity and my phone. I don't worry about the electricity. We never had it 'til I was grown anyway, but I do worry about my phone. Sometimes my old heart acts up, and I need to get hold of some help. I don't have a car. Can't drive anymore anyway.” He paused, looked down at the floor and then back up to me. With the calmest assurance I ever saw, he said, "But the Lord knows I needs a phone. He teks care of the lillies of the field. A sparrow never falls that He don't know about it, and He's gonna keep on taking care of me.” He stopped, looked directly at me, and asked, "Don't you think so?"
I couldn't stand it any longer. I said, “Yes , Melvin, I certainly do.” And reaching in my shirt pocket, I pulled out a folded check and handed it to him. "That's exactly why I am here," I continued, "to let you know that some people you've never met, but who love the Lord and want to serve in His name, care about you and want to help."
He opened the check and looked as if he'd seen a ghost. His lips trembled, his eyes filled with tears until they spilled down his cheeks, and he mumbled something softly as he clutched the check to his breast as if holding a newborn baby in his arms. Of what he said, I only understood the word "bread." I asked, "What did you say?" He acted embarrassed and apologetically answered, "Oh, I was just talking to myself.” His reaction had my curiosity to the breaking point. I asked again what he had said. Between gentle sobs he explained that he had said, "My bread is coming back."
For the uninitiated,
Ecclesiastes 11: 1
says, 'Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many
days.” "My bread is coming
back!" I submit to you is one of the great statements of faith to be found
in any language. "My bread is coming back!"
We cried together and rejoiced together for I knew more about how he had, in fact, cast his bread on the waters than he was aware. A friend of mine in the heating oil business told me about Melvin. He said, "Melvin is a rarity. I take him oil now although he hasn't paid me in several years. But many times through the years he has called and said, 'Fill so and so's tank and send the bill to me; they're out of work', and he would pay it every time. "
One of those whose tank was filled up was a minister of a Baptist church further up the same road where Melvin lived. It had been twenty years ago now. It was Christmas then too, and the minister didn't have money for groceries or Christmas. Melvin learned of their plight, had the oil tank filled, took the minister's wife to the grocery store and told the owner, "Give them what they need. I'll pay for it if they can't," and made preparations for his own wife to take the children to town and get them some "Santa Claus." Sadly enough, the evidence is clear that this minister's church knew of his plight, but it was this jolly black giant who reached out in love to do something about it.
Melvin had to tell me about his wife before I left. She had been dead for two years. He said, "I miss her so; she was the light of my life." Then he said, "Oh, preacher!," shaking his head in characteristic fashion as if that helped him say some things he couldn't put in words. "You shouldda knowed my wife. You’d be a better man if you had. She suffered an awful lot before she passed, but..." his voice trailed off. Tears came back to his eyes. He shook his head again as if he could hardly explain what he wanted to say. "...but she framed her pain with patience.” He seemed so proud. And I? Well, I sat there and just listened. It was one of the smartest things I ever did. Never had I heard or read theology that went more directly to the point or was phrased more beautifully... “She framed her pain with patience.” It haunts me yet. In all the literature of philosophy of religion or in theology, I do not recall one person ever suggesting that the way to handle pain and suffering was to frame it with patience. Almost fifty years of pastoral experience have taught me that there is no better way of dealing with it, both in psychological terms and in religious terms.
My cup was full. I couldn't take in anymore for the present. I needed to leave now and ponder all these things in my heart. My heart was so full. I thanked him with such intensity that one would have thought he had just rescued me from personal bankruptcy.
What joy! What a spiritual feast it was to be in the presence of this man! What amazing spiritual insight! And it didn't come out of an ivory tower. Melvin was a dropout from the third grade, but he had gone far in God’s school. It was insight gained from the crucible of a dedicated life. That shouldn't have surprised me. The Bible says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who practice it." (Psalm 111:10).
Melvin is gone now, but my bread is still coming back.