Magazine article The Christian Century

Best Gift

Magazine article The Christian Century

Best Gift

Article excerpt

THE BEST GIFT I ever received was something I never wanted. A few days before I finished my 12th and final year as pastor of a church I loved deeply, the congregation's lay leader shuffled into my office. Nobody had bothered to vote James Alexander in as lay leader; he just was the leader of the laity, the godfather of a sprawling church family united largely by their love for this giant of a man. James was 89, but he seemed as if he had centuries on him. Wise, solid, very southern, with a gravelly voice and surprisingly undiminished physical vigor, he wore overalls in a pretty dressy community.

Those of us who knew James were awestruck by this man's holiness--it was not that smug, sanitized kind of holiness, but an earthy, calloused, believable holiness. He visited church members more than the clergy did, called in advance to ask permission on the rare occasions when he had to miss worship, and hugged all the children. He still drove a tractor, and he had lived with his hands in God's good earth to the point that he was one with creation.

"I couldn't decide what to give you, now that you're leaving," James said to me. "I bought a nice leather Bible for your family." Coming from anybody else this would have seemed corny, but I sensed he wasn't done. He reached deep into his denim pocket, pulled out something and gradually opened his crusty hand. It was his pocketknife, worn from decades of going everywhere with him, indispensable for a country gentleman who wanted to be prepared when a rope or apple or container needed to be cut.

I've reflected on the profound marvel of his gift. If someone asked me, "James, list 500 things you might vaguely hope to possess one day," I (a city slicker) would never have said, "Hey, a pocketknife is what I want." But here was this invaluable treasure being pressed into my palm.

Then James added some words. "Carry that around with you in your pocket. Then some day, when you're having a bad day, feel it down in there and remember that somebody loves you."

James had loved many pastors (well, there was one he said he merely liked), so the knife wasn't an achievement award. But somehow the lovely truth that he had loved my predecessors earmarked the gift more clearly to me as an instance of grace.

The undesiredness of the knife gave me pause. I didn't want a knife, but then I didn't not want a knife either. How many of my sermons when I was young were bedeviled by the notion that God satisfies our desires, that Jesus fills the yearning we have inside? Not that God doesn't satisfy our desires. But the gift God gives is something that we generally never thought of wanting, or that we'd forgotten how to want. During Holy Week, the disciples weren't queuing up for crosses. …

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