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Forgive us our debts

I grew up Baptist and have been reciting the Lord’s Prayer for as long as I can remember.  In my earliest days I recall the phrase “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  I envisioned someone crossing over a fence into someone else’s land since there were many “No Trespassing” signs posted along fence rows in those days.

As young adults, Mary Lou and I joined the First Presbyterian Church when we got married and started raising our family in Donalsonville, Georgia.  It took me several years to be able to say without hesitation the Presbyterian version of the same prayer.  “Debts” replaced “trespasses.”  This is also the version found in the book of Matthew.

You could always tell when there were visitors in the church when someone said “Forgive us our trespasses”.  In community prayers “debts” was almost like a secret password that identified you as Presbyterian.

After moving to Auburn almost five years ago, we joined the Methodist church.  Once again, I had to learn to say “trespasses”.  Along with a couple of different words used in The Apostle’s Creed, I willed myself to say this prayer I had known since childhood without saying “debts”.  It took a while.

This past Sunday Mary Lou and I attended services in our old church found on one of the main corners of the city.  Lot 1, Block 1 in the city of Donalsonville was given to the church by John Donalson in 1898.  The church has been on that corner since before the city was incorporated.

It was a wonderful service made especially so by seeing many old friends.  This church family helped raise our children, nurturing us in good times and bad.  It is where my faith deepened thanks to the many Godly men and women that showed us the way.

I played the organ for 35 years.  It is the thing I miss most about leaving our home of over 40 years.  Cantatas, weddings, funerals and more Sunday services that I could count.  I enjoyed them all.

Mary Lou and I both served as Clerk of Session over the years. We taught Sunday school classes and led youth groups. We learned that a church flourishes when people seek God’s blessings together.  We watched the church grow its membership and strengthen its financial stability.  The church increased the percentage of its budget dedicated to missions every single year we were members there.

A strong Presbyterian church is something you rarely see in a small rural community.  A Presbyterian church that sustains itself for 125 years is almost unheard of in a small town in the deep south.  Not many Presbyterians move to a small town, so we had to convert a few Baptists, Methodists, and even an occasional Lutheran to the flock.  

We were blessed to have young couples that resulted in several baby booms over the years, one so large that a new children’s wing had to be built.  

We had plenty of older people around that reminded us that we “have always done it that way”.  Some things changed and some things didn’t.  During most of my time there, it was the most amazing multi-generational group of people that I have ever been associated with.  At any given time, four generations worshiped together as a church family.  

It was never perfect and occasional differences would boil to the surface.   Should the yellow brick on the outside remain unpainted or be painted gray?  What color should the front doors be?  Should the carpet in the sanctuary be green or red?  Should the service remain traditional or be more contemporary?  Perhaps it should be a blended service, which others argued only guarantees that no one is happy.

The hardest thing about leaving our home of 40 plus years was leaving our church family.  It only took one return visit for us to remember all the things we loved about worshiping with this group of believers.

When the time for the Lord’s Prayer came around, I prayed for God to forgive us our “debts” without giving it moment’s thought.  I will have to start my conversion back to “trespasses” all over again when I return to Auburn.

The church recognized Mary Lou and me during this special service for the leadership roles we had and support we gave during our time there.  It was a totally unexpected surprise for us and is something we will always remember and treasure.

As we drove back to Auburn, after enjoying the extraordinary covered dish luncheon, I could not help but think about debts.  I owe a debt to Donalsonville’s First Presbyterian Church that can never be repaid.  All I can do is try to make a difference for others the way this church family did for us.  

I believe that God led us to this particular place of worship in 1980 because He knew it was where we belonged at that point in our lives.  I cannot repay the debt, but I can say thank you to First Presbyterian Church and congratulations on 125 years of faithful service.  You made a difference in our lives.


Dan Ponder can be reached at

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