When I see a penny on the ground, it reminds me of a sermon I heard two summers ago. I’m probably getting some details wrong, but here’s how I remember it.
The priest told about a monk who worked with men overcoming alcohol and drug addictions. He would walk and talk with them, and sometimes he would drop a penny. (The priest stepped away from the lectern and strolled down the aisle and back, depicting the scene.) The guys would notice the pennies but not say anything. Over time he would drop more valuable coins. I think it got to a half-dollar before one of the guys finally said something: Hey, you dropped some money.
I know, he told them. He likened the coins to sins, the dropping to awareness of them, and the retrieving (or failure to retrieve) to attentiveness to that awareness. The more you ignore those pennies, the easier it is to become numb to the nudge.
Niggles and nudges, a friend calls them, because that’s what one of her friends calls those little twinges of conscience, prompting us to hold back from what we shouldn’t do, to push forward and do what we know we should do but don’t always want to. I picture mine as a border collie, herding me or nipping at my heels. Sometimes the dog-ahem of a low growl is enough.
I heard that memorable sermon at a small church in Massachusetts, after the Glen East weeklong workshop. I was at the checkout table, and one of my classmates was checking out too. He mentioned that he and his wife were going to worship nearby. “Can I come with you?” Yes, there was room in the car, and room for a fourth, so he invited another of our classmates as well, and we were four pilgrims off to pass the peace and hear about pennies.
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"How do you pursue God?" That was the question of the week recently at The High Calling, a vast web site based on the belief that God cares about our daily work. Sometimes they invite guest posts on the week’s theme. I started to write an answer, but it wasn't fleshed out enough to share publicly by the time the deadline passed. My answer begins in a question: DO I pursue God?
I think “pursue” is not the first verb I'd use. I approach. Sometimes tentatively, with a sense of . . . sheepishness; sometimes overboldly. Alone, I approach in prayer, more than anything, and also in reading the Bible, and singing. With others, I approach in all those ways, but the strongest sense of approach — perhaps strong enough to call it pursuit — is at the Lord’s table. The simplest answer is that my approach is always in things that take me to a place where I become aware of God's pursuit of me. We meet after I take what I mistakenly think is the first step.
Sometimes I am frustrated with the way my denominational tribe approaches the Lord's table. (Sometimes I am frustrated with the ways single people are invisible in the church.) Occasionally I sneak off for what I call "a maintenance dose of liturgy," to a place where everything in the service builds to the table, and we literally approach it, getting up out of our seats and walking to it and holding out our hands. (Occasionally I sneak off to someplace where I expect to be invisible.) I did that a few Sundays ago.
As I drove toward the place I’d decided on, I was within eight blocks of my tribe's house when I remembered we were having a potluck. I love potlucks. Two friends had reminded me the week before, and I planned to take something, then plumb forgot. The service was nearly over. Dang.
I drove on toward the church I had chosen partly because I knew the current interim priest from the days I wrote about religion for the newspaper. I've always appreciated and found meat in his sermons. But there was a guest preaching that day. Although it was only a few Sundays ago, I can’t remember the sermon. Something about vineyards and vines. I sang, I prayed the people's parts of the liturgy, I approached the table and was fed, I hugged two people I knew on the way out. But I still felt hungry.
When I got to my car, shining in the sun on the asphalt beside the driver's door, there was a penny.
On the way home, I drove by my tribe's house. There were still cars in the lot. I parked and got out, then remembered to peel off the name tag that the greeter at the other church had insisted I wear. (No one had looked at it in order to call me by my name.) I asked a couple leaving the building, "Are people still eating?" Yes, said the husband, "and there’s a plate in there with your name on it."
“Laura!” Jim exclaimed my name like he was really glad to see me, and pointed me quickly toward the food. Two huggers intercepted me, a young woman who almost always tells me she is still keeping that gratitude journal I spoke about a year ago, and a woman who always remembers my flute playing at our church’s open-mic coffeehouses.
Pam, about to retrieve her Crock-Pot, dished up the last scoop of her dressing for me. Garden buddy Judy (who is also Jim's wife and my Mary Kay lady) wagged her finger at me, which I think was a loving "I see your potential, and you can do better." I found a place at the table beside Vanessa. Nancy came by to tell me she enjoys reading my daily gratitude lists. As the buffet table was cleared, I noticed the desserts were gone. Sally came up and asked, "Would you like a piece of sweet potato pie? I have one left."
I approached the table, late, sheepishly, humbly, empty-handed. I was met, pursued, fed, filled.
On the way home, the CD in the car played Julie Miller’s "By Way of Sorrow," a song that makes me punch "repeat" repeatedly. It’s the second verse that gets me.
You have drunk a bitter wine with none to be your comfort,
You who once were left behind will be welcome at love's table.
There was more to that sermon about the pennies. The monk asked the guys, Why didn’t you point it out to me when I was dropping smaller coins?
All week, I carried that penny in my pocket.
Laura Lynn Brown would give you a penny for your thoughts. She is the author of Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories. More of her words can be found at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her gratitude blog, Daylilies.