"Stewardship," a farmer friend once told me, "is leaving my place in a little better shape than I found it." Put another way, that means giving back more than one receives.

Not long ago, I heard about a rural Midwestern church that was having trouble meeting its obligations. In fact, the deficit was so serious that some members recommended closing the church's doors. The treasurer agreed, saying the situation was hopeless, and resigned.

Then a man named Thomas, the owner of the town's grain elevator and a longtime member, stepped forward. He would agree to handle the church's finances for one year, with one proviso: No accounting would be made until the end of the year. Though quarterly reports had been the custom, the church trusted Mr. Thomas, and he was given the job.

The church focused on its ministry instead of on finances, and there was more harmony than old-timers ever remembered. At the end of the year, Mr. Thomas issued his financial report. All obligations had been met, including mission commitments at home and abroad, and the church bank account showed a balance of more than ten thousand dollars.

"How in the world did you do it?" the moderator asked.

Mr. Thomas at first seemed reluctant to reveal his secret, but then he spoke. "When you brought your wheat and corn to the elevator, I paid you what you were due, less ten percent, which I gave to the church in your name. I did it to show that you wouldn't miss your unknown tithe. But if you want your money back, I'm prepared to repay you right now." At first, there was some mumbling among the members, then laughter, then applause.

Mr. Thomas's object lesson had proven an old spiritual law that is timeless and immutable: Try as you may, you can never outgive the Lord.

Remind me, Lord, when my purse I hold tight,

That I've never come close to the widow's mite.

By Fred Bauer