Thursday, February 12, 2009

Common People by Thomas Lane Butts

Today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He was by all appearances a very common man. It seems to be a good day for us to think about value, and values, of common people.

In October, 1864, Carl Schwarz wrote a letter to Theodore Patrasch in which he said: "You are underrating the President (Lincoln). I grant that he lacks higher education and his manners are not in accord with European conceptions of the dignity of a chief magistrate.

"He is a well-developed child of nature and is not skilled in polite phrases and poses. He is a man of profound feeling, correct and firm principles, and incorruptible honesty. His motives are unquestionable, and he possesses to a remarkable degree the characteristic God-given trait of this people, sound common sense."

Lincoln was a common man.

On the night of December 23, 1863, Lincoln dreamed that he was in a party of undistinguished, unattractive people; when they found out who he was, they commented on his appearance.

One of them said, "He's a very common-looking man." Lincoln retorted, "The Lord prefers common-looking people; that's the reason he makes so many of them."

Judging people by outward appearance is a common but dangerous practice. First impressions are important, and you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That is a good thing to remember if you are going for a job interview or on a blind date. Wise people do not judge by first impressions and outward appearances. Sometimes there is gold underneath a common outward appearance.

Some of the greatest gifts in life come from common people. I have read more than one version of this story. This is the essence of the story.

Charles Elliot was president of Harvard University in the 1800's. In the spring of 1885, a humble-looking couple from California showed up at his office. The only reason he agreed to see them was the man had recently been elected to the U.S. Senate.

The couple, Leland and Jane, told Dr. Elliot that their only son had died of typhoid fever that year. His dream was to attend Harvard University. They wanted to give the university a gift.

Dr. Elliot looked at this rather plain-looking couple and asked them what they had in mind. They wondered if the school could use a building. Dr. Elliot sized them up as a kindly, but naive, couple whose grief was most likely deeper than their pockets. He told them that it would be quite costly. He suggested that maybe they might consider endowing a chair in honor of their son. Perhaps they should go see the academic dean, he said.

When the couple stood to leave, he asked what Dr. Elliot thought it would cost if they just built a university out in California and endowed it so that students would not have to pay tuition.

Dr. Elliot was stunned. He said he thought it would cost something like $5 million. Leland and Jane looked at one another and agreed that they thought they could do that. The couple left and within the same year, they began plans to build a university in California in honor of their son. Today we know that fine school as Stanford University.

One cannot help but wonder if Dr. Charles Elliot ever stopped kicking himself when he realized what Harvard University might have looked like if he had responded differently to that common working couple from California.

The best people I have ever met were common people. If you consider yourself to be a common person, stand tall, be proud. We are "legion." (You may email Dr. Butts at )

AN ENCOURAGING WORD written by Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

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