This is a story of how one evening spent counting the offering at church changed my perspective on giving forever. It’s a story of generosity at its most beautiful and most heartbreaking. It’s a story to remind you to look for the unexpected in the ordinary and never to be afraid to have your whole worldview altered by one simple act, by someone you would never have associated with, were it not for the church.
This is a story about boiled sweets.
It was a normal Sunday, by all accounts, sometime in 2011. The 6.00 pm service at church.
‘During the last hymn the offering will be taken. If you are a visitor at this church, please do not feel under any obligation to give. This is very much for our church family. Anything given will be used to further the work of the church here in the parish and further afield.’
The same words every week.
As a member of the PCC, it was my job—along with the verger—to count the collection at the end of the service. As usual, we tipped the offering bag upside down and let the coins, notes and envelopes fall onto the desk. A quick shake of the bag, and we began counting.
Except that this week there was something different.
In among all the shiny coins and slightly crumpled notes, there lay a solitary boiled sweet—a reddish colour, wrapped in crispy, crinkly cellophane.
I’ll be honest, I laughed it off. I brushed it aside as a joke, an accident, a moment of madness by one of our more ‘interesting’ parishioners.
Chuckling to myself, I left the sweet to one side and finished counting the money. I can’t even remember what the total came to. In jest, we noted the addition of the boiled sweet at the bottom of the collection sheet.
Later that evening, sitting at home having post-church dinner with my mum, I mentioned the boiled sweet. I recounted it as a funny story, a ‘look how wacky our church is!’ tale to wheel out at dinner parties.
But then my mum stopped me.
‘Yes,’ she said quietly, ‘I know about that. One of the ladies came up to me at the end of the service this evening. She said she hoped I wouldn’t mind, but she put a boiled sweet in the offering. Her benefits ran out on Friday and she hasn’t been able to afford food for the weekend, so she’s been living on boiled sweets. When she heard that the offering would be used to help the work of the parish, she knew she didn’t have any money, so she decided that she would give up her final boiled sweet instead.’
In that moment, I nearly cried. Suddenly, the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:1–4) became a reality. ‘These people gave their gifts out of their wealth,’ Jesus said, ‘but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’ Suddenly, the direct debit of however much per month I give to the church felt like a pittance compared with the generosity of this woman. The humble gift of one without enough to eat, who gives to the church what, realistically, cannot make a difference to its work, is 1000 times more than I have ever considered giving.
There are so many lessons to be learnt from this simple story. When you understand that sometimes the smallest offerings have the biggest impact, you learn something of what it means to truly give of yourself.
You realise how much we, the church, could learn from those who have very little, if only we were to pay slightly more attention. You learn how important it is to be a part of a church that welcomes in the rich and the poor with open arms, that doesn’t discriminate and places the vulnerable at the very centre of their community. But I think the thing I learned most of all from this story is that the size or scale of the gift doesn’t matter; what matters is the attitude with which it is given. And sometimes, I have learnt, the smallest gifts have the biggest impact.
This is an extract taken from Nell’s book ‘Musings of a Clergy Child: Growing into a faith of my own’.