Worthless Penny, Priceless Worship

A Story from the African Church

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Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” —Luke 21:1–4

Missionaries are not immune to pity parties, and I was having a big one.

It was so hot where we lived in South Africa that before bed, we would moisten our sheets, take a shower, and jump into bed a little wet so that we could be cool for a few hours. The dust was so prevalent that it could find its way into a sealed jar! We cooked our food outside so as not to make the house even more unbearable.

We had a generator in a nearby building to pump water up into our storage tank and to have electricity for a few hours in the mornings and evenings. We had to drive hours through the mountains from our small town to a city where we could buy groceries and eat out in one of the city’s two restaurants.

We were such an oddity that people would walk from outlying villages into our small town just to see the white people. For the first fourteen months, we had people constantly in our house sharing both lunch and evening meals. We had a 1960s telephone that we had to crank the handle in order to “book” any calls we wanted to make through the local post office. Those who booked the calls became very fond of my wife’s sandwiches, cookies, and other treats.

We were weary, hot, sleep-deprived, tired of company, out of groceries, and daily I was complaining to God about all that we had to sacrifice in order to take the gospel to this particular end of the earth. Our boys thought we were on a great adventure, but I tired of this relentless camp-out and could easily list what we had given up to serve in this place. I envied my wife’s smile as she greeted the endless stream of guests in our home and around our table.

Thankfully our next weekend of ministry was a six-hour trip into the mountains bordering South Africa and Lesotho. A home had been arranged to host us. Beds had been borrowed so that we would not have to sleep on the floor, and we were looking forward to the higher elevation with mild days and cool nights.

Small Gift, Large Amount

Typical Christian worship in these small, rural churches was at least a four-hour affair. They were so thrilled to meet us, especially our boys. Our three sons had their white skin pinched and their blonde hair rubbed repeatedly by village children. I sometimes envied our sons their freedom to run through the village with other kids as we sat for hours as honored guests in every church or home we visited.

After hours of worship one day, I was happy to announce that our mission board back home in the States had granted the churches of our host country $10,000 to provide Bibles, train leaders, and start Bible studies in homes. Our sponsoring churches would not feel the loss of this amount of money, and perhaps that contributed to my slightly cavalier presentation.

But I have no excuse. I should have known better. We knew that most of our audience made only one dollar per day — if they had a paying job. For them, $10,000 was a staggering amount of money. And in the context of apartheid, this sum was overshadowed by the fact that white Christians cared enough to give black Christians a significant gift. Given this context, $10,000 seemed like a massively sacrificial gift. Because I had placed my cultural awareness in neutral, I was not prepared for what happened following my almost throwaway announcement.

A spontaneous offering broke out — and it lasted over three hours.

The whole church began to clap and sing, with the women making a trilling sound with their tongues (called “ululation”) that I have been unable to emulate for 32 years. They began to dance in groups of four to six. With mesmerizing grace, they would dance toward the handmade altar-table at the front of the church. They would sway together in rhythm, two steps forward and one step back, slowly making their way toward the front. Moving in harmony before the offering table, hiding money in their hands, they would mimic placing their money on the table and pull it away until, at a moment known only to them, they’d slap their money on the table. It was worship at its best. There was a joy of giving that was immeasurable.

Kids began to beg money from adults. They would take whatever change they received, run to the tiny store next door, and exchange their money for even smaller coins, so that they could dance to the altar with their coins multiple times.

Worthless Gift, Inestimable Value

Caught up in the exuberance of the moment, I noticed an old woman sitting by herself, seemingly unaffected by the joy of giving that surrounded her. After nearly two hours of spontaneous offering, this woman finally stood up and started making her way to the front of the church. She was aged, with wrinkled flesh, arthritic fingers, and a look of deep concern and determination on her face. She was too crippled to dance and too focused to sing.

As she limped toward the altar, she reached into the front of her blouse and took out a knotted handkerchief. With crooked fingers and teeth, she slowly unknotted her handkerchief to reveal a small coin. When she reached the altar-table, she slowly laid her coin on the rough wood. She stood by herself for a moment and seemed to caress the coin before slowly walking back to her bench.

After hours of spontaneous offering, I went up to the front of the church with one of the leaders. I picked up the coin she had given. I had never seen such a copper coin in the seven years we’d lived in South Africa. I gave it to the leader, telling him who had given it, and asked him if he knew what it was. He stared at me before taking the coin and walking back where the old woman was still sitting. After about ten minutes, he returned with her story.

All to Jesus

What she had given was a British halfpenny. It was her life’s savings and retirement fund. It was all that she had. What she did not know was that this coin was taken out of circulation in 1967. It had no value. It could buy nothing. Knotted in a handkerchief, stored in the front of her blouse, this coin had measured her hope for the future.

Still she gave it all to Jesus.

With the leaders’ blessing, I took that halfpenny, after placing a significant offering in her honor on that scarred table, and I’ve kept that coin for almost thirty years as a reminder. After hearing her story, we wanted so much to empty our pockets to help this old lady for her retirement. The local leader asked us to leave her alone. “Don’t you cheat her out of giving everything she has to Jesus. Don’t cheapen her sacrifice. She belongs to us and we will care for her. We will tell her story of sacrifice, and it will live for generations in this village.”

Ten thousand dollars was a generous gift from believers in America. Yet a worthless, British halfpenny taught me about sacrifice and giving all to Jesus, trusting him for the days to come. I can still see that old woman in my mind’s eye today. I recall the way she limped, and the difficulty she had unknotting her handkerchief. I remember the shock I felt after learning about her sacrifice — and her trust in God for all tomorrow would hold.

I’ve often heard “You can’t out-give God.” I’m not even going to try. I can’t out-give that old woman in the mountains of South Africa and Lesotho.

is a leading expert on the persecuted church, having researched extensively in more than seventy countries. A veteran missionary of thirty years (primarily in North Africa and the Middle East), Nik is also the author of The Insanity of God, which inspired the motion picture of the same name.