Lena Schultz lived in a tar paper shack just outside St. Cloud, Minn. She had no friends. Her neighbors considered her homely. Her dresses hung on her gangly frame like on a scarecrow, several teeth were missing, and her face and arms often bore bruises from the nights her husband returned home in a drunken stupor.
Lena was the last customer on my paper route. By the time I reached her home on frigid winter afternoons, I was cold and tired. Slogging through snowdrifts I looked longingly at the front windows of my customers' homes, hoping someone would invite me in to warm up. It never happened-until I reached the tar paper shack.
Lena would peer through the tiny window, the frost freshly scraped away, awaiting my arrival. The ritual was the same. She flung open the door, welcomed me with a big smile, removed my heavy coat, cap and gloves and sat me at the kitchen table.
And there we sat--a 12-year-old shivering paperboy, soaking up the warmth of her stove, and an elderly, lonely, somewhat eccentric woman--drinking hot chocolate and eating cookies.
Years passed and I had almost forgotten Lena until after my parents died. Cleaning out their belongings, my sister found a diary in my handwriting. At the back of the book, I discovered an itemized list of cash gifts my paper route customers had given me one Christmas.
As I read the names, my route stretched out before me in my mind's eye. I saw the faces of customers and imagined their houses along Wilson Avenue. The gifts they'd given me were small. Most gifts were a dime, a few were a quarter, two were 50 cents.
I recalled that my father, a barber, had accepted an invitation from one his customers, a new preacher in town, to attend an evening service in his storefront church. I went along. It was my introduction to gospel singing.
Among the worshipers sat Lena, Bible in one hand and hymnal in the other, a bright smile on her face, singing her heart out. It was all clear. Lena loved Jesus and sharing was a natural part of her life.
She was in league with the widow who gave her last penny, the woman who lavished her love upon Jesus with expensive perfume and, of course, with the one who was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Lena knew the one who became poor so she could become rich, the one who died and rose again that she might have real life.
Lena gave me my first real glimpse of my gracious and loving Christ, whose humble birth was God's costliest Christmas gift.