Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Big Debts

Having lived through the Great Depression in the 1930's, I have always been afraid of debt. For most of our 59 years of marriage we have been able to avoid buying anything we could not pay for upon purchase. This is not always possible, but it is an important goal. Our country's credit card culture has led many into unmanageable debt. The recent economic downturn has ruined the credit and the lives of millions of people who were living beyond their means.

Thinking about big debts, I accessed the national debt website when I was writing this column. The national debt was 13.730 trillion dollars and increasing millions of dollars each minute. This amounts to $44,185. per citizen and $124,497. per taxpayer. I would start paying off my part of the national debt right now if I knew how. This is not a situation created in the last two years, but it scares me! In spite of what some politicians have been ignoring for years, this is a debt of dollars which must be paid, sooner or later, by someone.

Today is Thanksgiving Day, which is a proper time to think of a kind of indebtedness not measured by the dollar sign. If you live long enough life will generate circumstances that will cause you to incur debts of a kind and magnitude that they can never be repaid. Money won't touch them. These are the debts we owe people who helped us when there was nothing we could do for ourselves. These intangible debts are sometimes owed to people we do not know. It is like what we owe to God, in that it is so much and of such kind that it can never be repaid. If you are a wholly self-made person who owes no one anything, neither tangible or intangible, you may stop reading now, for this column does not apply to you.

Debts larger than life can be paid only in the currency of gratitude, which, in some ways, is very difficult to express. No matter what you say, there is so much more that needs to be said, for which you cannot find words. Unfortunately, gratitude tends to be a short-lived emotion. People forget to give thanks for those intangible gifts.

Several times in my own life I have found myself in need beyond my own resources. I have been down and somebody picked my up. I have been at the mercy of circumstances over which I had no control and somebody helped me make it. I have been, and am now, indebted to people who have done things for me, things for which there is no way to repay them directly. It is a unique feeling to realize you can never repay the people who have reached out to you and literally saved you. Words won't work. Even a silver-tongued wordsmith of a preacher cannot formulate phrases which are adequate. Let me give you just one example of ways I have become indebted to people who helped me when I could not help myself. One example of someone who helped me in ways I can never repay. There are many.

When I came home from graduate school in 1957, the South was embroiled in the civil rights struggle. I had planned to avoid any controversy a year so I could get myself established in my new assignment to the Michigan Avenue Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. I quickly learned one of the realities of life I had not anticipated. You do not pick the time and place for important battles. The time and place pick you. The fifth stanza of James Russell Lowell's 1844 poem, "The Present Crisis" comes to mind. "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right, and the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light."

Three months after my arrival at the Michigan Avenue Methodist Church, I was visited by three men who identified themselves as members of the Ku Klux Klan as well as members of my church. They informed me that it was the custom in that church for the Klan to visit the church on the third Sunday night in September. They said they would come in the front door during the singing of the first hymn, dressed in full Klan regalia, march down the center aisle, place money on the altar, go out the side door, remove their robes and come back in to worship. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was only 27 years old! I had no time to think about how to handle the situation, so I addressed it head-on. I told them I had no police force with which to stop them, and was not sure I would stop them if I could, but they had to understand what I would be forced to do in response. I told them that if they put money on the altar in the name of the Klan, I would sweep it up in an offering plate and throw it out behind them. The Third Sunday night in September came and went and the Klan did not come. I thought I had dispatched the problem. Big mistake.

Three months later the black ministers of the city petitioned the City Council to desegregate the city bus system. Two white clergy prepared a petition supporting the petition of our black clergy brothers. I signed it. I was young and idealistic, and imagined that as soon as the city fathers and the citizens of Mobile became aware of what the clergy felt should be done, they would respond positively and appreciatively. Big mistake.

The lesson of reality in this situation came quick and painfully. Among the signs that I had misjudged the local climate in general and my church in particular was a cross burning in front of the parsonage and a second burning in front of the church. Names of the white clergy who signed the petition were on the front page of the newspaper and there was a scathing editorial taking us to task for meddling. A sizeable group of my Church members met to fire me. (I had to meet with them and explain that you cannot fire a Methodist minister.) Tithes and pledges were withheld from the church, and some members were suggesting the parsonage be sold and the pastor's salary cut to $1 per year.

I will not bore you with other unpleasant details, but there were many. The attendance at my church reached an all-time high, and the offering fell to an all-time low. It appeared that my church not only could not pay its apportionments and mission askings, but we were dangerously close to being unable to pay utility bills. Obviously there was no money for the pastor's salary--the pastor who signed the petition to desegregate the city bus system.

One Friday afternoon as I sat in my office anguishing over the plight of the whole situation and contemplating leaving the ministry, a very fashionably-dressed woman walked across the church lawn. I had never seen her before. She came in and asked to see the minister. I introduced myself. She handed me an envelope and said she wanted to make a donation to my church. I asked who should be credited with the gift. She said it was an anonymous gift.

When she left I opened the envelope. It contained two bills with more zeros than I was accustomed to seeing on money. It was two $100 bills. I had never seen a $100 bill! I had heard they existed, but had never actually seen one. (I haven't seen many since.)

The total annual budget of my church was $9,000. My salary was $3,800. Two hundred dollars was lots of money in 1958! I was elated until my wife asked how I planned to get the money into the system. My church officials were suspicious of outside money, and they would want to know the source of such large bills. A $100 bill would have knocked the bottom out of the offering plate. I resolved the problem by driving to a bank in Brewton, Alabama, 75 miles north of Mobile, and getting the big bills broken down into twenty- dollar bills. When the offering was taken, each Sunday morning and night I would face the altar, with every head bowed and every eye closed, I would drop 2 or 3 twenties in each plate. That raised the offerings to almost normal level.

The mysterious lady came every Friday bringing $200 - $500 in $100 bills. I kept the road hot to Brewton getting the money changed into smaller bills - my first experience laundering money. One day I followed her to her car and took note of her license plate number. Hilda and I later decided we had no right to disturb her anonymity. I never found out who she was or why she came . My church stayed solvent, and nobody ever knew where the money came from.

This woman literally saved my ministry. I was most grateful, but all attempts to thank her were brushed aside. Gratitude had to move beyond words for any effective expression. For the last 50 years I have never missed a chance to help ministers in distress. Every time I am privileged to help someone, I whisper a prayer of thanksgiving for the mysterious woman who helped me many years ago. I wonder if she realized what she did. I wonder if she even remembers. Sometimes I wish I knew who she was so I could thank her for a gift that goes on giving as I try to repay a debt that can never be repaid.

Most of us at some time in our lives have been on the receiving end of gifts which have saved us. Sometimes it was money; sometimes it was an intangible act of kindness and encouragement at a critical time in our lives. Name the people you owe, if you know who they are. Write or call them and tell them how much they meant to you. If they are dead, or you do not know who they are, pass it on to others. Life has a way of giving us opportunities to repay those who have helped us.

Happy Thanksgiving!