A Call to Christian Courtesy

Stephen Ambrose, who is sometimes referred to as “America’s Historian”, wrote an excellent booked called “Nothing Like It in the World, The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869”. In it Ambrose tells of the incredible impact that the connection by rail of the east with the west brought to this nation. The golden spike was placed in May of 1869. Dr. John Todd, the minister who offered the dedicatory prayer at the golden spike event that marked the completion of the Transcontinental RR said, “It was the greatest work ever completed.”  In 1883, a few years later, General William Tecumseh Sherman made his last annual report as head of the United States Army writing that the completion of the railroad was, “the most important event of modern times.”

The problems that these men overcame were monumental. There were bridges to build, and mountains of granite that they would have to bore through. There were no supply stores waiting on their arrival – in many places they even had to transport their own water. There was opposition from the Indians, horrendous weather conditions to contend with, and gorges to fill with dirt transported by handcarts. When completed it would not just impact the commerce of the United States, but the world. It was that century’s equivalent of putting man on the moon.

You would think that with all the hard work and the danger they endured together, the men would have formed a lasting bond and appreciation for each other. However, some of the not so shining moments were when many of our Anglo citizens were unkind to the Chinese workers who helped build the railroad.

Ambrose writes, “In the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkley, there are Chinese-English and English-Chinese phrase books from 1867.  The English speakers learned how to say in Chinese: “Can you get me a good boy”, “He wants $8.00 per month?, He ought to be satisfied with 6.00!”, “I think he is very stupid.”, “Come at seven every morning.”, “Go home at eight every night.”, “Light the fire.”, “Sweep the rooms”, “Warm the clothes.”, “Wash the windows.”, “Wash the floor.”,  “Sweep the stairs.”, “Trim the lamps.”, “I want to cut his wages.” 

Ambrose sadly notes that two phrases that never appear in the English-Chinese book are, “How are you?” and “Thank you.” In completing the massive work of the transcontinental railroad, the employers were more than willing to learn orders of command, but left off the kind consideration of asking how one was doing.  What’s even sadder is that many men had neither the desire, nor the common courtesy, to learn how to say, “Thank you!”

Webster defines courtesy as “consideration for other people, politeness connected with kindness, good manners”. In 1Peter 3:8 we are commanded, “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:” Each of the exhortations given within that verse deal with our demeanor toward others. Last, but not least, is the exhortation for us to be courteous. The simple grace of being kind and courteous in our dealings with others is something that distinguishes us from the abrasive and egocentric disposition of this world. The world does not know us by our doctrine, neither do they care about where we stand on the King James Bible. They are watching our faces, listening to our speech, and observing how we treat others.

One of the worst maladies that will ever infect a Christian is the spirit of entitlement. We become blinded to the opportunities of being a blessing to those around us, and instead we become focused on anything that might inconvenience us. That “me-first” attitude causes injury to all those it touches.

  • It’s the little waitress who gets castigated by the all-important pastor for not getting his order right.
  • It’s the waiter who serves an entire table of church people who generously leave him $2.27 tucked inside a gospel tract.
  • It’s the bank teller who wonders why the pastor never smiles, and the store clerk who remembers being scolded by him when the cash register malfunctioned.
  • It’s the visitors who leave a church feeling disconnected and unwelcomed.
  • It’s anyone who comes in contact with a Christian and isn’t asked “How are you?” or performs even the simplest of services and doesn’t hear “Thank you!”

The world expects more from a Christian, and well they should. It’s not our bigness that keeps us from being courteous; it’s our smallness. Being courteous won’t cost us much at all, but it will gain us the opportunity to be a witness for Christ. Look around you. People try to mask their pain, but they are hurting. Your kindness may be the only light in their very dark day. Christian courtesy – don’t leave home without it!