I believe in the five dollars my father gave me after I burned down the family garage. Though the flames didn’t destroy the entire wooden structure, they charred a good portion of it, enough to warrant the arrival of two fire trucks and an impressive gathering of neighbors.
At twelve years of age, I was an arsonist, howbeit an unintentional one. Warm charcoals left from a Sunday evening barbeque found their way into the large cardboard box we used as our garbage receptacle. They got there because, well, I was assigned clean-up detail.
A leisurely ride in the family car to a local ice cream shop and our return home an hour later provided ample time for coals to ignite the cardboard and for the flames to do their damage. A fireman, walking back to the truck while shouldering his coiled hose, informed my father of the fire’s source. My stricken face and then the tears suggested to my dad the rest of the story.
My dad was a man of few words. When those words failed and misbehavior required discipline, on more than one occasion, a leather belt to my behind spoke volumes.
My father cupped his hand behind my neck and steered me away from the crowd toward a dark corner of the yard, to a place there would be no witnesses. There was some comfort knowing what to expect.
What happened, however, was something unexpected. My father reached into his back pocket, pulled out his worn, black wallet, and handed me a five-dollar bill. What he said has stayed with me for more than forty years: “You mean much more to me than this garage.”
That was it. That was all. Just nine words and five bucks. What he said was enough, but the addition of the substantive gesture was his way of backing up his affection for me.
My dad never made it past the eighth grade. He never made much money. He was not a mover and a shaker. But I believe in the five dollars he gave me that night. The monetary value aside, that gesture has reminded me over the years that life is punctuated by unexpected moments of forgiveness.
Because my dad was able to forgive me that night, I now believe in undeserved gestures of grace; in the handshake when one expects a cold shoulder; in gentle eyes when one deserves a hard stare.
I believe each of us is more than the sum total of our mistakes and failures. As my dad taught me in that single act, when we look beneath the surface of a person, we can see that even the worst of our actions do not completely represent all that we are.
I believe in the power of that five-dollar bill.
Daniel Plasman has been a minister and photographer for the past thirty years, and he currently serves East Congregational United Church of Christ in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He enjoys taking pity on old houses in need of rehab, and he loves to travel with his wife to cultures where he doesn’t know the language.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.