I was probably nine or ten years old and my parents had dragged me off to church as they usually did on Sunday mornings. After an hour in what was called Sunday School, singing, learning Bible verses, and going off to class with a small group of other kids my same age, we were invited upstairs to the sanctuary for another hour of worship. More songs, more Bible verses, a sermon, a choir, and if you are familiar with this scene, you know the rest of the trappings. If you’re not familiar, imagine a very large room with big windows, some of them in stained glass, a kind of stage up front with a lectern and a pulpit and the choir of 30 or 40 people. There were rows of hard, oak benches or pews filling the sanctuary that held some 300 people. The order of worship was pretty much the same every Sunday. This was what was called then The First Congregational Christian Church in a small, western Ohio town. I often wondered where the second, third orfourth might be, as I knew of banks in town that had names First National and Second National.
As the church service unfolded there came a point in time where the ushers – four, suited gentlemen – marched in step from the rear of the church to the front. There they received four large brass plates from the pastor, after a short prayer asking people to give as they had been blessed in their own lives in order to help the lives of others. Frank was the CEO of the church who was often called “the preacher” for that’s what made him popular or so it seemed to me. He delivered sermons with a fairly high degree of passion and intensity that kept most people awake and listening fairly well. However, as I looked around I could usually find one or two who had nodded off. I looked around often, counting ceiling tiles, window panes, organ pipes, people, whatever I could find to keep my mind occupied.
As the ushers proceeded from front to back, row by row, they passed those large brass plates back and forth to each row so that people could put their “gifts” which meant money, into the plates. Those gifts were in numbered, weekly envelopes or in hard, cold cash. My parents put their envelopes in each week with the cash inside duly recorded after the service. I watched this weekly ritual with great interest and one Sunday morning, I turned casually to my Dad, as this part of the service began and said, “Can I take some out?” With his characteristic candor and wisdom, he leaned over and whispered back, “Yes, you can, but remember to always put in more than you take out.”
Little did I know then the impact of what my Dad said which was also what he did in his own life. Later on in my life this life lesson was renewed over and over as my career of learning, teaching, leading and serving unfolded and evolved over some fifty years. That aphorism was so imprinted on my mind and spirit that it became a constant guide for my work, my relationships and my goals.
I have not always lived up to it 100% as there have been times when I felt like I took out a little more than I put back although I may have tried to repay it later in another way. Regardless, it’s a lesson from Dad, one of many, that has stuck with me over the years and served me well. For that, and much more, I am enormously grateful.
(Included in Seven Decades: A Learning Memoir (River House Press 2013)