PANORAMA - Paying it forward pays off

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I couldn't believe it. It was one of those things I've heard about in church, when someone receives a totally unexpected blessing.

There, in my hands, was a letter from my dentist, forgiving me for the $500 debt I owed.

I'd felt guilty and ashamed of my financial circumstances, and when I realized I could not pay what I owed, I'd written his office to ask him to let me work off the debt.

The answer stared me in the face. It was "absolutely not." It left me no alternative but to accept his terms: "Your debt is paid in full."

I stared at his letter with tears in my eyes. My wife, Quynh, asked me what was wrong. Wordlessly, I handed her the letter.

Waiting for the dentist's response, the worry had been almost too much to bear.

"He probably thinks I'm a bum or some kind of loser," I'd thought. Now, released from the debt, I almost felt that I'd cheated the dentist.

I shared the story of his kindness and how I felt with my friends at church, and one shared a similar story. "Learn to receive," he said.

He said the doctor was obviously a Christian and was doing what he felt God wanted him to do.

Learn to receive. You're probably thinking that's an easy lesson. Not so. And the humility that comes with it is not easy to live with, either. I had no choice but to accept his generosity, because I couldn't pay the debt. My world was still falling apart. In fact, things were getting worse.

As the days went by, I tried to think of a way to thank the dentist. It was hard to imagine going to his office and facing him. It wasn't as if we were friends. He did a random act of kindness and it didn't matter who I was, it would not have changed his deed.

As the weeks went by, my mother, Mildred Marshall of Walla Walla, came to Lubbock, Texas, for a visit. While there, she accompanied me on a business trip that took us to Oklahoma. We talked for hours, and I was still bubbling.

I thought that Mom couldn't possibly imagine how I felt, but she saw how I'd been lifted out of depression.

"Come on, Mom," I said, as we drove to a dumpy little cement building in Oklahoma City for breakfast. "You're going to have a breakfast that you will never forget."

I never thought that it would be a breakfast prepared by God.

The restaurant's neon light read "open," but the door was locked. Inside, a man stood behind a counter.

I pounded on the door.

"He's not open," Mom said. "Let's go find another place."

But I was hungry. I knocked again. Looking back, I can almost see God smiling. "That's my boy," He must have been thinking.

Probably scared at my pounding, the poor soul inside finally opened the door and we were in before he could say anything.

I could see the man was deeply hurt, depressed and alone.

I asked what was for breakfast, and almost immediately, asked, "What's the matter?"

His name was Thang, and he thinking of ending his life.

"My wife left me and the kids," Thang said. "She ran off and has become an alcoholic, but the kids are in Irving, Texas, and I can't get home to see them. I have no money. My car is in the shop, and I am about to lose my house that the kids are in right now."

Thang had been a printer and lost his job. Working here, he made little and could not get out of debt enough to leave Oklahoma.

His story was heart-wrenching. I began to witness to him about Jesus Christ and the blessings I'd received. I told him that Jesus had led us to him at this exact moment. "God is not punishing you," I said. "He is just trying to get your attention."

As he went into the back room to start breakfast, Mom and I put together what money we had. As he returned with the food, we gave him the money.

"I will be back in a few hours," I said. I asked him to promise me he wouldn't do anything until we could meet again.

He promised.

When we came back, we brought Thang additional mone.

"Quit your job," I recommended, "fix your car and get to your kids as fast as you can. A family needs to be together. God will bless you. He loves you."

Thang said he was a Christian, but had fallen away. Now he seemed happy as Mom and I sat down to a cup of tea.

"I know that God is going to help me and bless me," Thang said. He said I'd saved his life and he'd be OK now.

As Mom and I left to return to Texas, we both felt we needed to stay in contact with Thang.

I'd offered to let his family move into my home and help him job hunt in the Lubbock area. A few weeks passed, and I thought he'd never call.

Then one day, I had three messages on my phone. Anxiously, I called back.

"Dean," Thang said, "You are my angel."

I've never been an angel to anyone, but I understood. "I know how you feel," I told him. "My dentist recently made me feel the same way."

Thang was excited. After Mom and I had left him in Oklahoma City, he' d rejoined his children in Irving, Texas. Now he had a job at a warehouse.

"I got a good job and I was able to keep my house. My kids are with me, and we are safe and together," he rejoiced.

For a moment things were quiet. "Praise God," I said.

Thang said he wanted to thank me in person. "I want to thank you and your Mom. I pray for you every day."

He must have been praying, I thought, because, in the meantime, God had been blessing my socks off.

The Internal Revenue Service had written to say it was not pursuing a lien it had levied on my bank and my payroll. I also heard from a friend to whom I'd owed money. She felt God leading her to cancel my debt.

I again could not keep the tears back. Four years in the Marine Corps, two years as a sergeant E-5 and all the toughness I tried to muster could not keep the water from flowing.

I e-mailed her and said it must have been a hard thing for her to erase the debt I owed her.

"Not at all", she said. "God told me to do it."

I wonder what great thing God is preparing for her now.

Now when I travel to Dallas, I often stop and see Thang. One day I stopped by his workplace. I wanted to take him to lunch, but he couldn't leave.

He was glad to see me and could stop only for a moment to talk.

"I would like to give you the money we would have eaten on," I said. "Why don't you take your kids out for a bite after work?"

A tear was in his eye. "Dean, if you don't mind," he said, "I would rather buy food for home."

"Of course," I said.

"You would not believe how faithful God is," Thang said. "I had no idea I would see you today and we prayed for God to supply as we ate our last food yesterday and did not know when our next bite would be."

He hugged me and praised God again. As I sat in my car, I wondered how God could have blessed me so much. Here was a man who was thankful for day-to-day things and was blessed a little at a time, but was just a happy as if he had the blessings I had experienced.

I called my wife to tell her we needed to spend some of the money we'd been saving to help Thang. She approved the withdrawal, and I was soon returning to the store to hand Thang another $200 for food.

We both had tears of joy. I hugged him again and off I went to Oklahoma. That night I was awakened by the phone. "Hello Dean, it's Thang."

Thang and his children were sitting outside on the porch, their chairs were in a circle as they prayed and gave thanks for the blessing.

Now that I had a better idea of what Thang really needed, I thought I could help and by the end of the year, he might be back on his feet.

My mother in Walla Walla had ideas of her own: she began making dolls and elves for Christmas. She has always made beautiful things and now she had a goal to sell them and send money to the family. After my sisters heard what we were up too, they jumped in too.

The entire family took on this mission of trying to help Thang and his family have a great Christmas. It became obvious that God was working in a much bigger way than I originally thought.

One of my longtime friends was excited about how people were helping. He wanted to help, too, and I was sorry I hadn't thought of including him earlier. I felt like I cheated him and Thang out the great happiness of giving and receiving.

Everyone who got involved has been blessed and has enjoyed the fun and excitement of giving and observing this family begin to prosper again.

Thang works 66 hours a week. Recently, his car had broken down, and he'd had to walk two hours to get to and from work. And yet, I never heard him complain. He was always thanking God.

When he tries to thank me for what I've done, I tell him it is God who deserves his thanks. I give because I received. The more I give, the more I have received.

After all, Jesus told His disciples that it is more blessed to give than to receive. When people who love God will follow Him in giving, everyone is blessed.

Dean Marshall is a former Washington state resident who lives in Lubbock, Texas. His mother, Mildred Marshall lives in Walla Walla.

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