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ONe to one: clean undershirts and pencils

by Keith Burden, executive secretary, National Association of Free Will Baptists. Email Keith at

THE SMITHS WERE AN ELDERLY COUPLE, and I don’t recall ever meeting more godly people. Trembling hands were evidence that he had Parkinson’s disease. His frail frame was stooped. Each step he took was slow and with great difficulty. I never saw him walk without a cane. They didn’t own a car yet seldom missed a church service. Members of the congregation provided transportation; most of the time they rode with our family. My brother and I were young, so putting four people in the back seat didn’t seem all that crowded.

One incident stands out in my mind. It was a few days before Christmas. We were dropping them off after a Sunday evening service. As they got out of the car, Mrs. Smith invited us in for some refreshments. To our delight, my parents accepted her offer.

Our family sat together on the sofa. A dish with an assortment of Christmas candy was placed on the coffee table before us. When I spotted chocolate covered cherries and peanut brittle, I knew we had made a good decision.

As we enjoyed the holiday delicacies, Mrs. Smith removed four gifts from beneath the Christmas tree and placed them next to the candy dish. “These are for you,” she said. “We wanted to say thank you for taking us to church each week.”

Not wanting to appear over-eager, we waited until our mom nodded her approval before we opened our gifts. I recall my anticipation as I removed the wrapping paper and opened the box to examine its contents. I couldn’t imagine what kind of toy would fit in a package this shape and size.

I opened the box, peered inside, then quickly closed the lid and sat there in stunned silence. “What did you get, Son?” Mom asked in a tone that suggested I should act pleased and excited. Not wanting to appear ungrateful I tried to think of a creative way to respond to Mom’s question.

I mustered a smile and said matter-of-factly, “I got three clean undershirts and some pencils that haven’t been sharpened yet.” That seemed like a perfectly accurate assessment. It wasn’t until we were back in the car and on our way home that I learned I had not given the proper response.

It has been more than 40 years since that Christmas and a lot has changed. I have greater appreciation for people like the Smiths. They were unable to contribute large sums to the church, nor did they occupy “high profile” positions of leadership. But they were faithful, even when they had plenty of reasons to not be. I have come to value other intangibles—things like the enduring impact of a godly example. More than four decades have passed, yet their influence on me remains to this day. I hope my life has the same effect on others.

That experience changed the way I look at giving. It isn’t the gift in a person’s hand, but the motive in their heart that makes Christmas so special. That’s why I’ll always be indebted to the Smiths. They gave me something far more valuable than new undershirts and pencils.


©2005 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists