Abraham Lincoln’s Talking Coat

Detail of the coat Abraham Lincoln wore everywhere, including the evening he was assassinated

Detail of the coat Abraham Lincoln wore everywhere, including the evening he was assassinated

As I watched the movie Lincoln (2012), I cheered in my spirit as I saw Lincoln’s simple humanity and how he wrestled with the seemingly impossible questions that shaped the current events of his day.

It was a difficult time to be an American, let alone the president. Yet as Lincoln faced the excruciating presidential decisions he had to make, he always seemed to arrive at a level of certainty about what he was supposed to accomplish.

I left the movie wondering to myself, How did Lincoln find such certainty in the midst the turmoil that surrounded his life?

Because the movie had to preserve the audience’s attention, the question of Lincoln’s inner machinery was left largely unexplored. True, there were a few moments when the storyline tried to gaze into the inner working of his heart, but ultimately the script writers chose not to explore the space of Lincoln’s inner process.

Thankfully, students of Lincoln know he left substantial clues about how he stood immovable despite the storms of civil war and political intrigue. One of the biggest clues was hiding inside of his coat.

President Lincoln was hardly ever seen without his great coat. It was a three quarters length overcoat custom made for Lincoln by Brooks Brothers. From the outside it was nice enough, but on the inside of the back lining we learn what shaped Lincoln in what proved to be his final years.

If you look inside Lincoln’s coat, which resides in the Ford Theater museum, you will find these words embroidered on the back lining: “One Nation, One Destiny.” The words are on a scroll held in the beak of a bald eagle, the symbol of America.

In four words, Lincoln summed up what was behind his presidency. In these four words he tells us, and more importantly told himself, how he would sort out the events, the demands, and the questions that threatened to swallow up his life.

From that embroidered panel, which followed Lincoln wherever he went, we can safely conclude several important things about America’s 16th president. First, he understood the power of big ideas. Second, he knew how to eliminate the noise of excess words and thoughts that so often obscure critical guiding truths. Third, once he reduced everything to four words, he took deliberate steps to make sure he never let those big truths slip through his hands.

If Lincoln were around today, I wonder if he would have skipped the embroidery and just went all-out for a tattoo. I can see him in a cabinet meeting filled with wrangling subordinates, suddenly bringing order by rolling up his sleeve and saying in a resolute voice, “Gentlemen, read the arm.”

What can we take away from Lincoln’s example? First, I think all of us can agree that we, like Lincoln, are facing confounding circumstances and questions shaped by the current events of our day. Although we may not live in the midst of civil war and assassination plots, most of us would agree that our lives feel destabilized by the events that make up our world today. Is it possible that we, like Lincoln, need to revisit the core guiding truths that shape our lives? Could we, like Lincoln, hone these truths to their plainest immovable words and ideas, and then recommit ourselves to living by these guiding truths?

Fortunately, for the Christian, we don’t have to go searching for a political or legal mandate. We have a leader, greater than any president, who already has sorted the words and ideas that swirl around our lives. He has already clearly pointed us to the irreducible words and central idea that defines who we are and how we are to navigate in our world. We find our leader and His mandate for life in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, verses 28-34.

 28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

 29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

 32“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Reading these words, and understanding the context in which Jesus spoke them, gives us a great starting point to follow Lincoln’s example of great ideas expressed in few words.

Consider the following questions as you try to design a mandate that will help you sort out the circumstances, questions, and demands that you face in your life.

1. Jesus didn’t make up the words He used to answer the lawyer’s question. The majority of them are found in Deuteronomy 6. Take a minute and read the first twelve verses of this chapter. What do they tell you about repeating your mandate? Do you think there was a bit of God’s wisdom in Lincoln’s decision to embroider his mandate into the back of his coat? Do you think it is necessary to physically display important ideas today? If so, what are some ways to do that?

2. Can you shorten the words of Mark 12:28-34? Did Jesus ever use a shorter version of this mandate?

3. When you think of loving God, is it helpful to consider what you know about how love acts, speaks, feels, etc. in a healthy human relationship? (For example when we love another person we spend time together.) See how many attributes you can list of a healthy love relationship between two people, and then ask yourself if they apply to loving God. Did Jesus demonstrate any of these “common love” practices in His relationship with God?

4. If being a lover is our mandate—first a lover of God, and second a lover of people—how important is it to clearly define what love looks like in real time? Have you ever read the Scriptures or prayed with this question in mind? If so, what was your experience? If not, are you willing to make this experience yours today?

Abraham Lincoln's coat stil is on display in the Ford Theatre

Abraham Lincoln’s coat stil is on display in the Ford Theatre Museum


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