I’m calling it my gingerbread penny because while reaching across the counter to pay for my latte at Starbucks I spotted it in a basket of gingerbread macadamia nut biscotti. Yum! I was actually doing my best to ignore the basket because Christmas plus coffee equals craving for something sweet and I love this annual treat the mermaid emblazoned elves roll out. Where I have a great deal of will power when it comes to other treats a late afternoon stop under the green siren of sea sign means I’m tired and hungry and it’s hard to resist. It’s just a little treat you reason and before you know it you’re nibbling away at your cookie. I had the courage of my conviction that afternoon though, but when something shiny caught the corner of my eye in the basket I had to dive in.
I was careful because I didn’t want to break any of the packages but if a penny was in there I had to find it. After five years, penny discoveries are now an all or nothing deal. I can’t just ignore one that’s calling to me. I will if it’s on a train track and the lights are flashing but as most of my friends know, I will actually stop in the middle of a busy street to pick up a penny which means I’m certainly not going to let my fear of giving in to the gingerbread get the better of me. So, gently I moved the cookies while the penny kept slipping down lower in the pile. Now I was beginning to understand why the pennies original owner just let it be. They didn’t want to have to put all the biscotti back!
The gals behind the counter are penny friends so they didn’t bat an eye. Some of them will even point out a penny if they think I haven’t seen it. Amanda, the world’s best barista, finds quarters so that makes my pennies seem insignificant. The gentleman behind me, however, thought this was completely silly. He was polite about it because they’d taken his order and I wasn’t holding up the line, but it was obvious he thought I was insane. I know if a word bubble popped up over his head it would have said, “It’s just a penny lady. Leave it.” Undaunted by his amusement I put the penny in my pocket when I heard him say, “Well now you’re a penny richer.” I was a little taken aback by his tone which meant I now had to offer some sort of explanation. Of course I didn’t have to, but I always hate the thought of people thinking I spend the pennies because I don’t. I’m sure his glibness rubbed me the wrong way too.
So, I gave him the two sentence explanation about me and pennies and when I told him I’d found a minimum of a penny a day now for five years he couldn’t believe it. It’s not the first time I’ve met a penny skeptic but the look of sheer amazement on his part struck me. He was dumbfounded by this. I was beginning to think he’d never found a penny himself. If there were ten cookies that had to go back in the basket during this exchange he said really on every other piece. One biscotti, two biscotti, three biscotti four, one really, two really, three really more – okay this is an exaggeration but I know he said really at least three times and that’s a lot, not if you’ve won the lottery, but when you’re talking to a complete stranger it is.
Typically you only get one really and then a wow so I was getting a little flustered. Fortunately his coffee was now ready, I was done with the display and more people arrived to distract both of us. As Amanda handed me my latte she said, “I don’t think he believed you.” I smirked and said, “Yeah, I’m used to that but he was quite the skeptic.” I answered. “It’s not the first time but what amazes me is that people believe a lot of other more unbelievable stories than mine. Think about it”, I said. “We grow up believing in Santa, flying reindeer, nutcrackers that come to life and elves that make toys but finding a penny a day is unbelievable? Shouldn’t be but it is.” Amanda laughed and agreed.
I headed out to my car found another penny and noticed a car near mine that had a nativity scene sticker on the bumper. Then on the way home I spotted several more. It must be the year of the nativity scene in my neighborhood because in the short five minute drive I saw almost a dozen. Manger scenes on cars, painted in store windows, and on lawns – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus everywhere. You’d expect to see them at the two churches I have to pass but no they were all just part of lay people’s holiday decorations. Several were in places where I know the families that own them and I was surprised this symbol was important to them.
We have a hard time believing in all the seemingly insignificant things God brings our way because we’re trained culturally to watch for something epic.
Now I’m home and put some Christmas music on while making dinner and notice that almost every other song playing on the radio in some way mentions either the baby Jesus, Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, Mary, or the star that shimmers in the night. This wouldn’t be surprising on the Christian station but this was the cable pop station. All around me the magic and mystery of Christmas is being lauded by more than just believers. While I think this is fantastic the penny in my pocket and the skeptic who’d dampened my spirits left me a little cynical. Christmas is the in the air and everyone is caught up in the wonder of it all but what would happen if I questioned someone about it like I’ve been pressed more than once about my pennies?
It might go something like this, “So, you believe that on Christmas Day a baby was born in a manger to woman who was a virgin and her husband confirmed this? Yes. Then shepherds who’d been tending there flocks that night were visited by an angel, not just any angel an archangel named Gabriel, who told them to go and see the baby? Yes. Next, three wise men that followed a star to find him visited the baby and brought him expensive gifts? Yes. Later, we learn this baby is the Son of God? Yes.” Well, to some the answer is yes to others no, but up to this point there’s not much argument. The Christmas story remains intact with people all around the world celebrating the miraculous birth of a man they either believe to be a prophet or a Savior. Now this is an outrageous story!
It’s a story we tell over and over, year after year, and celebrate looking to the stars in the sky at night with great hope for what it might mean to us. We gather at church and read the story, we take images from the story and decorate with them, and children re-enact it all over the world. It’s a story that has become sacred and nobody at the holidays would think about questioning those people who believe every aspect of it. At Christmas Christians aren’t challenged to defend their fervent belief in it. In fact it’s probably the one time of year everyone get’s on board because people love the miraculous.
The list of miracles we need goes on and on, so much so that we can’t see the little gifts under our Christmas tree even though we all know big things actually come in little packages.We’re a culture that thrives on looking for miracles. We spend millions of dollars looking for them. We read about them, watch movies filled with unbelievable imagery, and feast on anything that offers a spellbinding finish. In sports we can’t stop talking about spectacular finishes. Here in Colorado Tim Tebow started being referred to as St. Tim after three miraculous down to the wire finishes. The bigger the story the better and yet all these kinds of stories run contrary to the lowly birth Jesus had. Aside from the angel and star leading his visitors it’s a really simple story. One that quietly speaks to the way God has always taken care of His people. He provided what we needed without a great deal of fanfare and he does this routinely. If most people look at their life closely they can see this. It’s called providence – God’s hand at work in our lives.
For me, pennies frame the picture and often I wish for others the same gift I’ve been given. Something that would help them see the way God is providing for them daily. My friend Jill calls it the gold thread that weaves through her life. This same metaphor has always been special to me as well, but now I would say mine is a copper wire and when I look closely I can see it even through the hardest times of my life. It’s God’s hand at work weaving everything together to cover me in a blanket of His grace. The trouble has never been that He hasn’t provided it’s that I haven’t always seen it because I was too busy looking for the big and miraculous. I was so focused on the next big thing He would do that I couldn’t see the little things He was doing.
I think my latest penny skeptic might have the same curse many of us fall prey to. We have a hard time believing in all the seemingly insignificant things God brings our way because we’re trained culturally to watch for something epic. Then when it doesn’t happen that way we’re disappointed. Disappointment leads to discouragement which lends itself to depression and the vicious cycle continues because when you’re depressed escape fantasies abound. When I win the lottery all my problems will be solved? When I get a new job all my troubles will fade away? When the economy get’s fixed we’ll all be better off? The list of miracles we need goes on and on, so much so that we can’t see the little gifts under our Christmas tree even though we all know big things actually come in little packages.
A big thing came in a little package 2000 years ago and little things have been coming everyday of our lives since then. My prayer this year for myself, my friends, and family is that we would resist the pull that always has us looking for the next big thing and instead look for God’s handiwork every day. It will be there and with every little gift we pay attention to this Christmas I hope what dies in us is skepticism because outrageous things REALLY do happen all the time! They really really do!