seeing the Kingdom through eyes of love - pastor allan
His Greatest Gifts
I was startled by a sound that had caught my attention many times before. It was a distinctive sound, the creaking of an old wooden wagon, buckles jangling as the mule that was pulling it lumbered its way slowly down the alley behind my house. As I peered from the upper window of the garage apartment that we lived in, I could see the haggard looking old man prodding the mule along on their daily quest. I had seen the somewhat scary looking old man many times before, his face seemed dark and dry, I suppose from years of exposure to the harsh Texas sun. The man’s face was wrinkled and unshaven with eyes that squinted with a laser focus, scanning the trash bins that lined both sides of the alleyway. His hands were bony with crumpled fingers that looked like a knotted, worn rope. They gripped the leather reins that were connected to the bridle of the old, tired looking mule. I’ll never forget the sounds that came from his mouth, noises that seemed to make the mule stop or turn as the old man rattled through the metal bins. He would sift through the trash, growling on occasion. It was a truly scary sight for a seven year old boy. I would usually hear him coming as he crossed the road that led into the alley and I would quickly run and hide behind anything I could find. I feared that he would see me and possibly even eat me, so I would hold my breath in silence until he had passed a safe distance down the rough, rocky path.
My sister Tammy and I spent many hours alone in this dingy two room garage apartment. Apparently my mother was working three jobs. She would make brief appearances in the early hours of the morning or later in the day just after we had gotten home from school. After a quick hug and a change of clothes she would leave for her second or third job, I never really knew for sure. There were many nights that my sister and I would awaken at midnight or later and realize that we were still alone in our apartment that was actually built above our landlord’s garage. We would sit at the top of the stairs peering down into the darkness below and cry ourselves to sleep waiting on a mother that rarely ever came. In spite of this unstable existence, as far as we knew, we had everything that we needed. I had my little plastic cowboys and Indians that I would play with for hours in the floor and my sister had a couple of Barbie dolls. Most of the time there was a package of bologna in the refrigerator and maybe a can of pork and beans as well. My sister and I learned to heat the bologna on the open flame of an old gas stovetop and usually would just eat the beans from the can. We didn’t realize that we were poor and we were generally satisfied with our lives for the most part.
I guess it was every other month or so that my father would come to pick us up and take us to his house across town where he lived with my stepmother. He had divorced my mother when I was three and I never really remembered living with him as a child. My dad lived in a nice little framed house with oak trees in the yard, a green house in the back and a grouchy poodle they called Frenchie. My stepmother never had any children of her own and didn’t really seem to like kids very much, but she was a good cook and we had nice beds to sleep in while we were there. Those weekends ended far too quickly as they dropped us back off at our apartment on Sunday evening about dark. We were never allowed to take any food, clothes or toys back with us, which I never really understood but we were grateful for the relative security we enjoyed, even for a short time.
Life with our mom seemed to get harder with every passing week. She seemed to stay away for longer periods of time and food in the house got more and more scarce. There were many nights that my sister and I would go to bed with stomachs growling, having been unable to find anything to eat. We lived in a very poor neighborhood and most of my friends were Hispanic boys that lived nearby. We would walk home from school together most days and I remember their mothers waiting for them at the door to lead them into the kitchen for an after school snack. The smell of tortillas heated with butter and sugar or little tacos filled with some type of meat would fill my nose with hope. Some days they would offer to share some with me which I would always gladly accept, but never felt right eating the food in front of them, instead I would take it home to share with my sister. On some nights this food was the only dinner we would have.
One day as my sister and I sat in the apartment alone we heard the familiar sound of the creaking wagon as the old man was making his way down the alley. We watched him from the window as we had done so many times before. He would rummage through the trash cans collecting household goods or anything else that he saw as valuable and he would place those things in the back of his wagon. This time though, we noticed something more. When he found scraps of food he would put them on the seat where he rode or he would simply eat them quickly as he stood over the trash bin. I guess we had never really noticed him eating the scraps of food before but watching him gave my sister and me an idea we had never thought of. True hunger will do strange things to a person and there were so many nights our hunger got the best of us. We began to go down to the alley late in the evening, waiting until just before dark in hopes that our friends or neighbors wouldn’t see us. Digging through the trash cans as quietly as possible, we would place all the scraps we found in an old paper grocery sack and scurry back up to our apartment to see what we could salvage. Cleaning the scraps the best we could, rinsing some and cutting the mold from other pieces, we silenced the growling of our stomachs for a time.
As I have looked back on those years I don’t think I realized just how difficult life was for a couple of little kids trying to survive. I know now that those scraps saved our lives and I think about the “gift” that scary old man gave us that day. While it was not an intentional gift and he certainly never knew he had given it to us, it was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. I’m not sure what happened to that old man and I never knew his name, but I have thanked God for him many times throughout the years. The truth is, I have actually taken my family back to the entrance of that alleyway where the old man would begin his journey in that creaky wagon. We have sat there together and talked about my childhood and thanked God for His mercy in my life. With tears we have remembered with gratitude the gifts that God has given me to get our family to where we are today, incredible gifts that are so often overlooked.
In today’s culture, even within the church, it seems we are always asking God for extravagant gifts and glorious miracles. Could it be that we are still missing the greatest gifts of all? The humble provisions we receive without even asking, provisions that may be the difference between life and death. Friends that stand faithfully beside us during times of great loneliness and sorrow. Family members who choose to love us in spite of our flaws and mistakes. Opportunities we’re given to share our lives with someone we may not even know.
Christmas time has arrived once again and many gifts will change hands in the coming weeks. I want to encourage us all to truly look beyond the ribbons and bows and see the gifts that bring real life. It could be a gift as simple as an old man eating scraps of food from a trash bin.
Yes, I know we hear these sad stories every year, as the Hallmark channel overwhelms our senses with feel good movies. But, could this be the year that we finally have eyes to see?
That is the gift I am praying for you to receive this year. Eyes to see His greatest gifts.
James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
I love you & pray for you a “Merry (gift filled) Christmas”