Monday, November 29, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 1

In the twenty-one years I spent as a student in schools, stretching from the day I entered Kindergarten at age four through my time at The Ohio State University and later, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, I had lots of really good teachers. But three of them stand out.

The first was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Everett. In Room #1 of Westgate Elementary School, Mrs. Everett ran a tight ship. There, a prophecy of my dad's, uttered after the first parent-teacher conference of the year, proved prescient: "If Mark doesn't learn from her, he can't learn." Well, I did learn. To this day, some forty-two years later, lessons that Mrs. Everett taught, academic and otherwise, still reverberate in my mind.

Then there was my twelfth grade English Composition teacher, Mrs. Rosemary Leuchter. Her life was the stuff from which novels are made. Before I met her, she had been the only teacher in a one-room New England school house; a physical therapist who cared for wounded soldiers and sailors returning from World War Two's Pacific theater; and a teacher of English at Columbia University. She so prepared us for the challenges and rigors of college work that in proficiency tests I took at the outset of my undergraduate career, I was given credit for all my required English classes at Ohio State, fifteen hours-worth of course work. In my four years of college and four years of seminary graduate training, though an indifferent student, I rarely scored lower than an A on research papers. Mrs. Leuchter had taught us how to do them successfully.

The final outstanding teacher of my academic career was one of my professors of New Testament, the late Bruce Schein. Pastor Schein, who had his doctorate from Yale University and had served for twelve years as pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Jerusalem, taught us by the interrogative method. He expected us to do our reading and research on the day's topics in advance of each class period and then, through a series of sometimes pushy questions, Schein extracted insights from us that we hadn't even known were there. It's an odd thing to say about students at an overtly Christian institution, but frankly, some of my classmates almost hated Bruce Schein. For my part, I must say that I learned a lot from him. In addition, his obvious and enthusiastic faith in Jesus, co-existing with a first-rate mind engaged in impressive scholarship, had a huge impact on me.

Each of these three teachers were demanding and stern, in their ways.

But they all had some other things in common. Chief among them is that they cared and they encouraged each of us.

They did so not with compliments or hugs, both of which can be used appropriately to bring encouragement to people. Instead, it was in their stringent demands for excellence that they showed how much they cared and by which they encouraged us to do our best.

For a person like me, prone to a lack of self-discipline, their styles were hugely encouraging. Their approaches to us expressed their belief that we could do better than any of us might have dreamed possible.

Over the next several days, I'll be talking about the power of encouragement. One thing that I've learned is that anybody can be an encourager. That includes you and me.

In two different letters which appear in the New Testament portion of the Bible and that are the handiwork of the first-century preacher and evangelist, Paul, a man named Tychicus is mentioned. We know very little about Tychicus. But Paul mentions him in two places: in a letter to the Ephesian church and in another to the church in Colossae.

To the church at Ephesus, Paul says that he's sending Tychicus to "encourage your hearts," assuring believers there that Paul was okay.

To the Colossians, Paul says, "I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts."

Great biographies have not been written about Tychicus. But it's obvious that Paul, clearly a great and important person himself, thought highly of Tychicus and of the power of the encouragement he could bring to people.

Encouragement comes in many different forms. We'll be talking about those in these posts. But it's always the result of a conscious decision by one person to infuse another with the courage and the hope to become and to do their very best. The decision to be an encourager is one that I hope you will make, if you haven't done so already. The impact of that decision can be extraordinary!

In his great book, Bringing Out the Best in People, Alan Loy McGinnis tells the true tale of a girl raised amid the scrub brush of a large ranch in Arizona. The four-room adobe house where she grew up had none of the modern conveniences. There wasn't even a school close-by. But this girl's parents sought to create an intellectually-stimulating environment for both her and her brother. They subscribed to many magazines. They taught the children at home until they were old enough to go off to boarding school. One summer, their parents loaded the two children into a car and went to every state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. Said the girl's brother: "We climbed the dome of every building until finally we had to come home."

Ultimately, the girl, named Sandra, went to Stanford University and then to law school. In time, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Writes McGinnis:
On the day of her swearing in, the Day family was there...During the ceremony [Sandra's brother Alan] watched her closely as she put on her robe, then walked to her seat among the justices. "She looked around, saw the family and locked her eyes right into ours," said Alan. "That's when the tears started falling."

What causes a woman like Sandra Day O'Connor to go so far? Intelligence, of course. And lots of inner drive. But much of the credit goes to a determined little ranch woman sitting in her adobe house at night, reading to her children hour after hour, and to parents scampering up the stairways of capitol domes, their children in tow.
In these posts, I want to encourage you to be an encourager. I believe that if all of us can learn to bring encouragement to others, the positive impact on our lives and on the world will be incalculable.

1 comment:

Gary Sweeten said...

Well done as usual. Keep up the good work. I learn a lot about writing my blog from your blog.

Affirmation/encouragement is a critic tool in counseling and pastoral care. My latest book, Hope and Change for Humpty Dumpty contrasts the positive approach of scripture to that of a hopeless world. My colleague Steve Griebling and I offer specific ways to affirm people in the middle of loss, pain and confusion.