Understanding The Bible
Louis Paul Lehman (1914-1986)
In 1952 Louis Paul Lehman published the wonderful little story that emphasizes the importance of giving gifts that are costly when giving in the name of Jesus Christ. A recording of this story, narrated by Louis Paul Lehman himself is available for download here: The Fancy Tale of The High Button Shoes.
The Fancy Tale of
The High Button Shoes
By Louis Paul Lehman
This is the story that preaches a sermon and therefore requires a text. David said in 2 Samuel 24:24: “I will not offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing.” And many of us need to learn the secret that real giving costs us something. Malachi, in the first chapter of his prophecy, berates the people for offering to the Lord the sacrifice of torn and lame and sick animals, rather than giving God the best. God deserves our best, and such we should bring. And thus I proceed to the story.
At a missionary convention a few years ago I was helping the missionaries set up their displays and exhibits of curios, and Miss Beulah Hartwick, a nurse who has served the Lord for many years in one of America’s own neglected fields, the Navajo Indian, placed on the table an almost forgotten piece of footwear, a nicely made pair of high-button shoes. One was tempted to say, as did a character of ill repute: This could have been sold and the money given to the poor; but it was included in that fantastic assortment of amazement known by every church and missionary society – the missionary barrel. Now, this was not an example of what the Navajo Indians wear or the type of thing which will win them to the Lord, but rather a classic, albeit ironic, example of what the Navajos cannot use nor appreciate as Christian charity. It is also what the Africans… the Chinese… the South Americans… the Mexicans… the Alaskans… and the Hindus cannot wear – nor appreciate. I picked up those old relics of a more conservative day, not entirely unappreciative of the fine leather and craftsmanship – but the old shoes seemed somehow miserable to find themselves in this embarrassing position. I am sure that their disgrace weighs heavily upon them, though neither dusty nor scuffed, they are by their unused condition the symbol of useless giving – of giving that cost nothing, therefore meant nothing, therefore, blessed nothing.
I held them a moment, a bit embarrassed myself, for the shoes, for the thoughtless donor unknown to me but well known to the Lord. They seemed to speak, and I thought that I should remember their story so that you might learn by it, and I might tell it again to my children, and their children, and they on to theirs; for it might be a good story for everyone who is interested in missions and missionary giving. I had to listen quite closely to catch it, for the high button shoes have no tongue, but the recitation, I am sure, came from the sole. I should like to tell you as ‘twas told to me by the old pair themselves: “The fancy tale of the high button shoes.”
“It is plain to see, sir, that we were well made, and as our style is quite dated, you realize that we are past the half-century mark by quite a bit. It was in a cobbler’s shop, bright and sunny, by a little window that looked over the main street of a small New England village, that we were made. The cobbler, a bright and sunny man himself, sang as he fashioned us, and even whistled at times. And as he cut and stitched and turned us into shape he looked out over the street, waving now and then to a passer-by; or when a small boy stopped and watched him he might call him inside, show him how to hold a shoe as you stitch it, and say intently, ‘Lad, would you like to be a shoemaker?’ the shoemaker would shake me towards him and say, ‘Ha, I’m glad I’m not a blacksmith, imagine making my customers stand with one leg in the air while I shoe them.”
“But we were well-made, carefully put together, our buttons sewed on with stout thread and our heels cut and shaped by hand. We were not to be just anyone’s shoes – we were made for the customer, a happy-voiced young lady who clapped her hands delightedly when she saw us, then kissed the old shoemaker and cried, ‘Uncle John, why they’re just what I wanted – these are my honeymoon shoes!
“And so we were. When the fragile wedding slippers were put away after the ceremony, we were worn for the going away occasion. We sauntered carefree and easy while she clung to his arm – out of the house, into the carriage, down the station away on the train… across the soft rug of the big hotel lobby… down by the beach… the narrow sidewalk around the gardens… and back home again! Then we became accustomed to marketing – the board sidewalk, the butcher’s floor with fresh sawdust, the tile hardness of the grocer’s, the kitchen, the living room, the closet where we were kept. We became accustomed to the smell of polish and the soft buffing of an old rag on Saturday night… the church on Sunday… the soft falling leaves of autumn and the first flakes of snow in winter… and slush… and ice… and spring again and green lawns. And then we found ourselves in a new room on the house: the nursery was pink, and the floor was shiny and clean. And we began after while to show signs of wear. We were set aside for a time.
“One day we felt ourselves pulled out of the darkness into the light. ‘Why, sure, I’ll have the shoemaker fix them,’ she cried. And back to the cobbler’s bench we were hustled with t whole mountain of worn, scuffed, dull, and somewhat smelly shoes. Somehow or other we were never the same after that. We were worn a few times, but if the session were long we were yanked off unceremoniously and allowed to lie on the floor as though distasteful to our mistress. We finally slept dusty and forlorn on the closet floor, then were transferred to a box… moved to the attic… then into a trunk… then to the cellar… then forgotten. It was there we hid for years, very quiet there.
“Then one day the lid of the trunk flew open, light poked its way down through the assorted clothes and souvenirs and old party decorations on top of us. A hand went exploring down the side of the trunk, then right down through the middle, and we could hear a voice saying, “something for the missionaries?... the heathen?... hmmm, what in the world?’ A flood of light hit us as the bolt of cloth somewhere above us was moved. ‘Hmm,” said a voice, ‘forgot about that… can’t give that… make that into a nice little blouse for myself. Let’s see – Jim’s old sweater, he can wear that in the garden. These old hats, oh, I’ll do those over some day. Baby clothes? Why, Mary will love these, might as well get some good out of them. Missionaries… hmmm, let’s see. Indians, heathens… oh, my, what for them? Well, ha, this is just right – Grandma Flag’s old shoes – high button shoes – oh, aren’t they a scream. Oh, they’ll be just right for the heathen, probably think they’re fancy… well, this is one way to get rid of some old junk, let’s see, anything else I don’t want, might as well give that.’”
It was then that the old high button shoes kind of squirmed in my hand. They looked at me with their black shiny buttons and said, “Sir, we were humiliated.” And I was a trifle ashamed myself. I began to scan through the barrel of my contributions and wonder if I gave because it was something I didn’t want or couldn’t use or just to have something to put down as contribution when I made out my income tax. “A cup of water in my name,” said Jesus, “will not lose its reward,”… but even that cup of cold water must be worth something to be valuable. A cup of water to a drowning man?... No, that wouldn’t be of any value. Or a cup of cold water when the man needed hot soup or steak and I could give it? Or a cup of cold water in His name when I could have given a whole stream of living water? No, the easiest way out, the business of giving just to give something – that’s not a blessed thing. But the old shoes were not to be denied. Having started their tale they wanted to finish it.
“And so,” they said, “we were dumped in a barrel with a lot of other stuff, some good, some very poor, and we finally made the mission. As the barrel was opened, we could hear children laughing and clapping their hands, the somewhat dubious grunt of the elders, and the optimistic tone of the missionary: ‘This is given in Jesus’ name by the Christians who wanted to help you!’ Well, ours was probably a poor barrel… and when we came into view, it made us sensitive of our age to hear the children say, ‘What’s that?’ and an old lady grunt, ‘Hump, nobody want dat’… and some Indian muttered, ‘Hmm, that’s Christian gift, huh, no good!’”
“We lay unnoticed on the floor, except by a little girl who tried to put us on and laughed until she almost choked. We watched the little folks sing over a few bright toys that worked, and some were made happy by warm, mended clean clothes with some wear left in them… and a mother got some new things for her baby, and she was glad; and we wondered about the hand that dropped us in the box as a gift in Jesus’ name. Would she ever learn that anything given in Jesus’ name has to cost something, be something, mean something more than just another way to clean the house of useless junk?”
Such is the fancy tale of the high button shoes as ‘twas told to me by the old pair themselves. And if it would be that in heaven we must wear some part or counterpart of the things we give to Jesus, as they asserted in the story that delighted my childish heart, heaven will be a strange place indeed: moth-eaten overcoats and raged dresses and buttonless vests. I think the figure purely imaginary, although I am sure that rewards and loss of rewards will be meted to all believers. But it makes interesting speculation. We could know each other by the gifts we gave in Jesus’ name. Walking down the street we might hail each other,
“Good morning, last year’s hat!”
“Hello there, worn-out sweater!”
Or, “Hi! Button shoes.”
 Lehman, Louis Paul, The Fancy Tale of the High Button Shoes, Copyright 1952, The Lamplighter Ministry.