Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The REAL Story of 57 Cents

I recently read a spam email, one of those tear-jerkers that sounds way too compelling to be true. As I read, I assumed it was a cooked-up tale. It was too sweet, with too many tender details, colorful language, and references to specific buildings and locations. I deleted it and was about to continue on with my day. But something stopped me. I'd been moved by the story. So I felt compelled to prove it was just Internet fiction: I didn't want to feel good based on something false.

Within minutes, I discovered the spam was based on a true story. Hattie May Wiatt, pictured right, was a young Philadelphia girl in the late 1800s. She'd gone to Sunday school one week and was dismayed to be turned away at the door, as the church was too crowded. (It was so crowded, parishioners had to request tickets weeks in advance for the Sunday sermon.) Hattie waited outside the Sunday school building, hoping she'd be able to get in later. The pastor happened to spot her waiting outside. He took her inside and told Hattie the church would soon buy a building big enough to hold everyone who wanted to come. Then she'd never be turned away again. The pastor knew the church already had a large mortgage and couldn't possibly afford a larger building at that time. But it seemed like a good dream to share with the child.

Soon after, Hattie took ill. She died in 1886, leaving behind 57 cents she'd saved to contribute to her church's "building fund." The pastor was so moved, he had her offering changed into pennies, and asked church members to buy them. Members did buy the pennies, turning Hattie's 57 cents into about $250. Additionally, 54 of those pennies were returned to the church. There's much more to the story, but essentially, the gift of 57 cents from a child turned into a large church, a hospital, and a university. (Read Hattie's story in a sermon given by Temple University founder Russell H. Conwell, the pastor who carried her into the overcrowded Sunday school.)

I felt so sad: I'd almost missed out on being inspired by Hattie May Wiatt. All because someone thought Hattie's story would be more interesting, more forwardable, if a few spicy details were added. The little girl's story never needed any embellishment.

I've heard some folks say they don't have a testimony. Seems they feel their own faith stories aren't interesting or compelling or emotive enough. And I think to myself, If only we all knew how God is using us! If only we could see the big picture--would we tell our stories more? Would I talk about the times I was feeling sad or alone, then felt a breeze brush my cheek and knew God cared about me? Would I share how a stranger's smile encouraged me, or how a kind word from a friend pulled me out of a funk?

As a writer, I've often been tempted to embellish a story, or to leave something out to make it read easier. And then I remember: There is a purpose for the specifics of each life story. God is in the details. I wonder if my sister Angela knows the music CD she gave me when she was only 12 convinced me I needed to give Christianity another chance. Or if my friend Penny knows her positive attitude was a major reason for my decision to become a Christian. Such little actions made all the difference in my life. From Russell H. Conwell's sermon about Hattie:

"Though you may think your life is humble, unknown, hidden, yet God sees all, and your life has probably just as great an influence for the uplift of mankind and the progress of His kingdom as has been the life of those who are seemingly great, seemingly famous in this world. There is no difference before God. The humblest of His Christian servants is doing just as much for His kingdom, when waiting, or doing faithfully their little duty."

To ponder:
1) What are the important stories of your life? What tiny moment made a huge impact on you?

2) Do you ever feel like your testimonies don't measure up? What are you comparing your stories with? What are your reasons for comparing?

3) Make an effort this week to tell others how their actions positively affected you.

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