Loaves, Fish, and the Principal

By JIM NICHOLS

An elementary school principal told me about the most unusual phone call he had ever received. A father of students in his school asked his assistance in identifying a family with children in that same school. The request went something like this:

Mr. Principal, our family recognizes that we have lots more physical things than some other families in our school. We would like to begin sharing our relative bounty with another family. The problem is, we do not know how to do this nor what family might be the most appropriate. We wish to do this anonymously but for an indefinite time. Our plan would be to put a small amount of cash in an envelope (with no return address) and send it to the family periodically. The initial mailing would include a note that the money was a simple gift with no strings attached. It might not be a good idea to send cash through the mail, but a check or money order would include our names and we want to avoid that. We think this sounds like a plan that we would like to implement, but we do not know a reasonable recipient family at the school. Would you be willing to be an “accomplice” in this activity by identifying a family and address that you believe could benefit from this? We have no requirements; we would trust your judgement and confidentiality. We will not mention you or the school in any way.

The principal was somewhat taken aback by this note and request and asked the father for a few days to consider it. Three days later, he gave the father a small piece of paper with a name and address written on it. He did not give any further explanation or comment. 

As the principal recounted this story to me, I was struck with the privacy involved. Clearly this was a plan designed to give something but receive no recognition in return. I suppose the donating family was speaking to their children about the activity and that the children were taught to understand the concept of “anonymous.”

The principal did somehow find out the quantity of money the family was sending with each envelope, and it was not much, about enough to buy five loaves of bread and two small fish.

You and I have been on the receiving end of such activities, have we not? It may not have come in the form of an anonymous envelope in the mail, but it arrived just as we thought we had a mountain we could not master. It may not have been money, but simply a greeting or a memory from someone. One of the troubling aspects of life for each of us is that we know how much such simple gestures mean to us when we receive them, but how seldom we are the initiator. If you know individuals who instigate such activities routinely, you recognize how much you treasure those people. They seem to be those who know that their very presence is often enough to make matters better.

In our better days we all recognize that this may be one of the most powerful ways that God acts in our lives. Unexpectedly, someone shows up and at least a few of our clouds begin to part. It may not even be a person, but a song we hear that holds a special place in our heart or memory. Perhaps it is an aroma or a birdsong.

Let us admit it. Everything we have is a gift. Our bodies may be wearing out and weary, our finances may be troubling, our relationships may be frayed, but we are living under God’s undeserved mercy every minute. Our sense of entitlement is a trap to make us angry and selfish.

Andrew said to Jesus, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Paraphrasing Jesus he says, “Have the people sit down on the grass and watch what happens.”

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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