Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 2

As a young pastor serving in a church in rural northwestern Ohio, I loved my work. I loved the parish and all its people. But as a city kid, I found the winters in that flat one-time swampland depressing and difficult. The grey skies of the season reached right down to the earth, enveloping my whole world with a cold grimness. Every winter, I got depressed.

But each winter, just as I was feeling my bluest, it seemed, my office telephone would ring. On the other end would be my colleague and mentor, Pastor Ron Claussen.

"I was wondering," Ron would start, "if you'd like to go out for lunch?"

I always said, "Yes."

When we had our lunches, Ron didn't say much. He'd just ask how things were going and I would vent. Ron asked clarifying questions and when I sought his advice, offered wise counsel.

It was many years later that I learned the truth about Ron's uncannily-timed lunch invitations. My wife, concerned about my blue moods, would call Ron up and say, "I think it's time." Then, Ron would call me in order to set up a time for reconstructing my battered little psyche. He did that largely, by making himself available to simply listen to me.

In my first post on the power of encouragement, I said that encouragers can make a tremendous difference in people's lives. But what do those who encourage others actually do?

I suppose our usual mental picture of an encourager is of a person who rattles off words of inspiration, a glad-handing personal cheerleader. But I've learned that may not be the case. Saint Francis of Assissi is often cited for saying, "Preach the Gospel every way you can and if necessary, use words." I find this also to be true of giving encouragement: Often we encourage others without using words, or at least, using them sparingly.

Here are a few the less verbal ways that we can encourage others.

First: We can listen. That's what Ron did for me when I got blue as a young pastor. In the Old Testament book of Job, as I mentioned in my series called When Suffering Hits the Innocent, a good man, Job, undergoes one tragedy after another. Understandably, Job wonders why all this has befallen him. He even wonders about God's fairness and love.

Three friends come to visit Job, a wonderful gesture. For a long time, they listen to him. But then they make the mistake of opening their mouths, trying to explain Job's situation.

As the story unfolds, we see that while they were listening, Job's friends were helpful. When they spoke, they made matters worse. There's a lesson for all of us in their experience.

When we listen to others, we tell them that we value them, that they're worthy people. In his classic (and admittedly, sometimes shallow) book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells the story of a woman who made a point of listening to her child. Once, in the midst of one of her youngster's talkfests, the little boy said, "Mommy, I know you love me very much." "Of course I do, dear. But what makes you say it now?" "Because you always listen to me."

By listening to others, we validate their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. After my talks with Ron, I felt like a more capable, competent, and worthy person. The skies didn't seem so oppressive any longer. Possibilities that my blue funk obscured were visible again.

Second: Another verbally sparse form of encouragement we can offer others is prayer. In his fantastic book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Quaker theologian and writer Richard J. Foster talks about how a teacher friend of his dealt with some of his students. Foster writes:
[This]...friend...teaches emotionally handicapped children [and] decided God wanted him to pray for them. Of course, he did not tell the children what he was doing; he simply did it. When one of the children would crawl under his desk and assume a fetal position, my teacher friend would take the child in his arms and pray silently that the resurrected Christ would heal the hurt and the self-hate within the boy. So as not to embarrass him, the teacher would walk around the room continuing his regular classroom duties while he prayed. After a while the child would relax and was soon back at his desk.
Foster reports that for the balance of that school year during which his friend sensed God's call to pray for his students. he found creative ways to do so. Then, Foster writes:
By the end of the school year, every child but two was able to return to a regular classroom. Coincidence? Perhaps, but as Archbishop William Temple notes, the coincidences occur much more frequently when he prays.
I've certainly found that to be the case. Years ago, a woman approached me and said that while she loved her husband dearly and was committed to their marriage, he was so prickly and crabby that she could hardly stand to be around him. "Would you be willing to talk with him?" she asked me. "If he wants to talk with me, yes," I told her. But I cautioned her that unless he wanted to talk with me, any conversation we might have on his relationship with her would be futile.

"But," I asked her, "could I suggest something else? Why not pray for him?" I think that she was a little miffed by this suggestion. It seemed so cliche, just what you'd expect a preacher to say.

A few months later, I was speaking with this woman when she said, "Mark, do you remember when you suggested that I pray for my husband?" "Sure," I told her.

"Well, I really thought it was sort of a silly suggestion at the time. But you know what? I started doing it and it really seems to work." She went on to say that she couldn't be sure whether she or her husband had changed more as a result of her daily prayers for him. Either way, he had clearly been encouraged to behave differently.

A final verbally spare form of encouragement we can offer to others is a good example. One of the boldest things that the first-century preacher and evangelist Paul ever wrote was, "Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us." (Philippians 3:17) These would seem like the words of an egomaniac if you didn't otherwise know about the humility of Paul. But because he knew he lived a life of constant repentance and renewal from God, Paul felt comfortable in calling others to follow his example.

What sort of example is your life? Does it give encouragement to others?

I have to confess that much of the time, my life may not be much of a positive encouragement to other people. I sin and make mistakes. I dig in my heels when I'm wrong. I have a boatload of bad habits. Still, I ask God each day for the ability to be an encouraging example of faithful living. God seems to answer that prayer..when I don't get in the way!

When my son was in middle school, I coached his recreation league basketball team. Over three years, we compiled an unbelievable 0 and 33 record. For me, the experience was incredibly frustrating and I could hardly believe it when, at the conclusion of the last game of that third season, several players and their parents asked me when our first practice for the next year was going to be. I'd had it. I hung up my whistle and never looked back.

About five years later, I got a telephone call. It was a young man who had played on the team. Shortly after that final season, he and his family moved to another state. He was back in town, visiting his grandmother. "I wanted you to know how much I appreciated playing for you," he told me. "All these years, my grandma has been sending me copies of your newspaper columns and I keep them in a scrapbook. You were the best coach I could have had and I had to tell you that I just volunteered to coach a rec-league basketball team. I want to be a coach like you."

When I hung up the telephone, I had tears in my eyes. Suddenly, all those practices and games when I felt frustrated because ten young men couldn't run a single play as instructed seemed worthwhile. It turned out that I'd coached a basketball team not to coach basketball, but to encourage a few young men in their personal growth and development. I felt guilty about all the frustration I'd felt and sometimes vented. And I felt grateful for the opportunity God had given me to be an encouragement to those guys over the course of three years.

There are many ways we can encourage others and we don't always do it through our words. Sometimes we encourage others by listening, by praying, or by asking God to help us to be good examples.

More to come...

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