December 12, 2017

Christmas Cookies in an Empty Coffee Can

Volker Stoeckmann

I sat listening intently as a middle-aged widow, the mother of four, taught us Bible stories in her broken English. She made the Bible come to life for my impressionable young mind as she pulled figures of Moses, Daniel, Ruth, John the Baptist, and the Christ-child out from the pages of her Bible and placed them on the flannel board. Her ministry in the basement of the little red brick church was invaluable to me. It was more than just a flannel-graph lesson that I was able to observe; it was the life of a godly woman earnestly serving the Lord through less-than-ideal circumstances. Raising preschool- and primary-aged daughters along with two sons in their early teens was not any easy life, but I never remember having a substitute teacher in the “Sunbeam Club” as she called it — she was always there. Week after week she would sing choruses with us, help us memorize verses, and tell us about Christ. She molded our hearts while others offered uninterrupted prayer in the auditorium above us at the midweek prayer service.

As I grew older her impact on my life began to take a different form. Her English hadn’t changed much, and she was still working in the children’s ministries, but I now watched her life as a mother of preacher boys in Bible college. Her faith in the provisions of God for her family became as visible to me as those flannelgraph stories she used to pull from her Bible. Year after year until all of them graduated, her children enrolled in an institution that was preparing them to live and serve the Lord. In her example of trusting God, I have had what I like to think of as my own widow of Zarephath. Oh, I’m sure in those years of Wednesday evening “Sunbeam Club” she taught me of Zarephath’s widow, but once again it was now more than just a lesson — it was her life that was “bringing the lesson home.” I was soon to head off to Bible college myself, and I had no reason to question that God would provide for my needs after what I had watched this widow go through.

It was during my own years in Bible college and for nearly a decade and a half since my graduation that this modern-day widow of Zarephath was and continues to be a source of tremendous blessing during the Christmas season. Every year my family (along with dozens of other individuals and families) receives a foil-wrapped coffee can filled with a delicious assortment of homemade cookies. These gifts have made their way into the homes of church and school staff, large families where needs might be more pressing, single mothers whose time constraints might keep them from baking, and also the often overlooked population of our land — those in nursing homes.

The labor of love I have watched over these many years is unfathomable for our fast-paced, selfish society. Today I sit astounded as I contemplate the details I’ve learned from a friend concerning this widow’s baking marathon. She begins long before the Thanksgiving holiday as she kneads, rolls, and cuts hundreds of cookies. Some years the process starts as early as late September with the actual baking efforts (not to mention the months prior to this when her purchasing begins). Her work doesn’t take place in a spacious kitchen with long counters, a center island, and fast-baking ovens. I’ve been in her home and remember it well — it’s a bungalow built back in the late ’30s when the kitchens were barely large enough to turn around in. But what’s more meaningful to me is how much she represents the widow of Zarephath’s faith. She’s now on a senior’s fixed income, and yet the cookie mill hasn’t stopped. It’s as if the barrel of meal in her kitchen “wastes not” and the cruse of oil on her counter “never fails.” Each Christmas season she uses over 100 lbs. of flour, 50 lbs. each of butter and sugar, 5 lbs. of baking chocolate, 25–30 bags of chocolate chips, 25 lbs. of nuts, 4 lbs. of honey, and 6 lbs. of shortening to bake those delicious morsels we all enjoy.

Now two of my own children are of the age that I was when she was my teacher. I caught myself wishing they could have her as a teacher … and then stopped to realize that they do. Although she’s not teaching them with Bible stories and flannelgraphs, she is teaching them with each foil-wrapped coffee can that makes its way to our home. The lessons about faith, sacrifice, and service are taught with every cookie they sample. Learning also that God takes the simple things of this world (like a widow and her coffee cans full of cookies) to confound the mighty. Do you think my widow of Zarephath realizes how far-reaching her “come to life” Bible lessons have been?

Volker Stoeckmann is pastor of Valley View Baptist Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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