Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Help and Hope

When I was growing up in a rural community in South Alabama during the Depression we used to sing many old hymns that are not in current hymnals. While looking for an appropriate thought for Thanksgiving Day, I remembered one of those hymns we sang frequently, "Help Somebody Today". It begins with this line, "Look all around you, find someone in need, help somebody today". It continues by suggesting in simple, direct, and heartfelt words some of the many ways we can reach out and help somebody. That hymn made a lasting impression on me.

As I look back on my struggle with ignorance and meager resources as I worked to get an education in preparation for Christian Ministry, I realize how close I came to giving up, and, indeed, would have given up had it not been for the gracious people who helped me make it, against all odds. I have a profound sense of gratitude for all the people who encouraged and helped me. Without them I certainly would never have made it into the ministry.

In the fall of 1948 I hitchhiked 20 miles to Evergreen, Alabama, took a Greyhound bus to Auburn, Alabama, and enrolled as a freshman in the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (later named Auburn University). I had $75., cash money, with which I planned to attend school for a year. I was naive and ignorant, thank God. If I had been wise in the ways of the world I would kept my $20.00 a week summer job and never attempted to get an education. But with the help of friends and a few minor miracles, I made it into the Ministry.

There was an elderly man in our community, known to us as "Uncle Alf". He was a widower. I don't think he could read or write. He traveled about in a buggy pulled by an old grey mule. Uncle Alf took an interest in my education for the ministry. He was poor, but thoughtful and generous. Each time I came home from school, he would fish around in his coin purse and find a quarter or a fifty cent piece and give it to me, saying "Tommy, maybe this will 'hope' you out. He always used the word "hope" or "hopien" instead of "help". I felt pretty educated by the end of my first quarter at Auburn, in fact, I felt more educated then than I have ever felt since. I chuckled to myself at Uncle Alf's misuse of language, but his sincere generosity was a powerful source of encouragement. I wanted to correct his word usage, but never had the heart to do so, thanks to another of the minor miracles that have graced my life.

Many years later, while doing an in-depth study of the evolution of the English language, I discovered something that made me ever so glad that I never had the nerve to correct Uncle Alf's word usage. In Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, the words "hope, hopen, and hopien" were the words commonly and correctly used for "help". Uncle Alf was using the very finest and most basic old English. My word "help" was late and modern English. By some strange turn of events this old man had retained in his vocabulary a word that went back a thousand years. I blushed to think how close I came to making a fool of myself.

It is interesting that "hope" and "help" are interchangeable. It makes sense. Anyone who has ever been helped knows that help IS hope.

In the middle of the winter quarter of my first year in college I completely ran out of money. I didn't have a nickel to buy a coca-cola. I was living in a Methodist Parsonage with the Rev. Charlie Mathison, a student pastor of a circuit of churches just outside Auburn. There were three of us living there. I had already packed my clothes that cold January night and had asked Charlie to drive me out to the main highway the next day so I could hitch-hike home. We were all single and we shared household duties. It was my night to wash dishes, and I was standing at the sink finishing up when Charlie came through the back door, walked behind me and reached over my shoulder, slipped something into my shirt pocket, and kept walking. I dried my hands and reached to see what he had put in my pocket. It was a twenty dollar bill. That was a lot of money!! I ran after him protesting that I could not take it because I had no way of repaying him. He said that it was not a loan but a gift. I asked where he got it and he said "It's none of your business". I unpacked by bags. If I had gone home my educational career and my dream of going into the Ministry would have been over. Help and hope came to me in the same gesture. That was long before I knew that the two words, help and hope, were the same. That was not the first time someone "hope" me out, and certainly was not the last.

Years later I tried to repay the twenty dollars, but Charlie would not accept it. He repeated, "It was not a loan, it was a gift". There are some things you can never repay, but you can pass it on. I have given that twenty dollar bill to literally hundreds of students in the past 60 years of my ministry, and I have still not repaid it. Charlie's twenty dollar bill is a gift that keeps on giving.

Help somebody today. It may start something that will still be giving even after you are no longer living.