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ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

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It happened in Dallas, Texas. A woman in a great big Cadillac was trying to get into a very tight parking space at a shopping mall, and she didn't have the right angle to do so. So she put her big car in reverse and backed up so that she could swing out wide and drive in straight.

But then it happened. A young guy in a little sports car shot right in front of her and went into the parking space instead! The woman in the Cadillac was furious. 'Hey young man,' she yelled out of her window, 'why in the world did you do that?' And the young guy, getting out of his little car, just laughed and waved at her as he went toward the store. 'Because I am young and fast!' he said. And with that comment, he went into the store.

Well he had been in the store for only a few minutes looking around when all of a sudden he heard this awful crash outside. And as he ran toward the window to look out, wondering what in the world that noise could possibly be, he saw an astonishing sight: The old woman in the Cadillac had reared back and driven her car right into his! And not only that, but she was backing up and getting ready to do it again and again! She'd started to pound his car to pieces! The young guy couldn't believe it! He ran outside waving his hands at the old woman and yelling at her to stop. 'What's wrong with you? Why are doing this to my car?' The old woman's reply: 'Because I'm old and rich!'

It's awful how we can do hurtful things to each other, isn't it?

Then there is the story about the politician who, riding a train through a major city, suddenly produced a $5 bill and said, 'I'm going to throw this $5 bill out the window and make somebody happy.' One of his ardent admirers suggested, 'But sir, why don't you throw out five $1 bills and make five people happy?' At that moment, a member from the opposing political party, seated in the corner, growled, 'Why don't you just jump out yourself and make everybody happy?'

A pastor and his wife had been at the church for twelve years. They'd had a solid ministry there, but when I asked 'How often have you had someone in the congregation - or a fellow-pastor or wife - make a special effort to communicate some encouragement to you?' he said 'Never!' 'Never?' I asked. 'No never!' he answered. I could not believe it!

DISCOURAGEMENT IS EVERYWHERE...

BUT...

If one part of Christ's body is praised, all the other parts share its happiness (1 Corinthians 12:26). A church of encouragers is a church that's alive. Discouragement is a sure sign of disease in Christ's body. 'The deepest principle in human nature,' said William James, 'is the craving to be appreciated.'

The key biblical encourager was Barnabas. Originally his name was Joseph, but he was nicknamed 'son of encouragement'. He left a trail of encouraged people behind him wherever he went. Just about every time he appears in the New Testament he's 'barnabizing' people.

NICKNAME

(By the way, if your friends gave you a nickname, would you be likely to get one like 'Encourager'?).

The Greek word _parakaleo_ basically describes whatever it takes to help others to be built up in Christ, or to help them to build up one another in Christ. Every Christian ought to be involved in this process (see e.g., Hebrews 10:24-25).

Like Jesus, let us be gentle with the wounded, and - only if we have earned the right - occasionally be tough with the lazy or those whose potential may be realized more by rebuke than a soft word. (In my experience that's very rare!). Helpful criticism should always - or nearly always - leave the person feeling he/she has been helped.

Goethe said: 'If you treat people as they are they will stay as they are. But if you treat them as they ought to be they will become bigger and better persons.' There are more 'win-win' conflict resolutions around than we realize!

Churches are often inept at encouraging their leaders. John Claypool in a sermon said, 'What often happens in life [is that] a person is given a difficult job by a group of people and then, instead of struggling with him and helping him find his way, the group sits back and lets him struggle alone until at last he "hangs himself".'

In one of his books, the well-known Scottish scholar, William Barclay, has written, 'One of the highest of human duties is the duty of encouragement. . . . It is easy to laugh at (human) ideals; it is easy to pour cold water on their enthusiasm; it is easy to discourage others. The world is full of discouragers. We have a Christian duty to encourage one another. Many a time a word of praise or thanks or appreciation or cheer has kept a (person) on his feet. Blessed is the one who speaks such a word.'

A LEGEND

James Stewart quotes this legend: God decided to reduce the weapons in the devil's armoury to one. Satan could choose which 'fiery dart' he would keep. He chose the power of discouragement. 'If only I can persuade Christians to be thoroughly discouraged', he reasoned, 'they will make no further effort and I shall be enthroned in their lives.'

A gawky 14-year-old boy lacked confidence in himself. But one memorable day his Sunday School teacher said to him: 'I believe you have significance: your life is going to amount to something.' Later, as a thirty-something he became pastor of a church of about 300 people. The staff was one and one third: he was the 'one' and his part-time secretary was the 'third'. Within five years there were 25 salaried staff (including seven pastors); the attendance about 1,000. I was that boy, and that privileged pastor. When I'm asked how Blackburn Baptist Church got to be like that I usually name one key factor: 'BBC' was a church of encouragers. There rarely 'was heard a discouraging word.' No Sunday would pass in the last few years of our ministry there without my pockets bulging with affirming notes from people. Sometimes we'd incorporate an 'encouragement segment' into a service, and write encouraging notes to others.

I read about a University football coach in the U.S. who each year would privately talk to a new player at the beginning of the football season. He told him, 'I'm very impressed with your ability. If you work really hard this year, I think you're good enough to make it to the National Football League.' He told this to every player on the team! You know what happened? He had the highest percentage of players of any University to make it into professional football.

People are healed by encouragement; they grow to like themselves in a healthy way if they're encouraged; they reduce their 'self-despising' through encouragement. Beware of a church of encouragers: you're going to have space problems! May Barnabas' tribe increase in our churches: God knows we desperately need more church-members like him.

An eighty-year-old saint in Canada wrote me a note: 'If he earns your praise bestow it; If you like him let him know it; Let words of true encouragement be said. Do not wait till life is over, And he's underneath the clover; For he cannot read his tomb-stone when he's dead!'

HOWEVER...

A note of caution. My desk calendar today reads 'People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.' We can depend so much on positive feedback that such praise becomes addictive: we cannot function without it.

A young monk, one of the 'Desert Fathers' looked after his elder, who was gravely ill, for twelve years without interruption. Never once in that period did his elder thank him or so much as speak one word of kindness to him. Only on his death-bed did the Old Man remark to the assembled brethren, 'He is an angel and not a man'. The story illustrates the need for 'detachment' although it could be argued the old man took his side of things a bit far!

FINALLY...

  • Some of you may be familiar with the work of the British painter Benjamin West, but you may not know that his initial venture into the arts almost ended in disaster. One day, when he was a young boy, his mother went out for a somewhat lengthy period of time to run some errands, leaving him in charge of his little sister Sally. In his mother's absence, he discovered several bottles of colored ink, and so he decided that he would paint Sally's portrait. In doing so, he made a very considerable mess, with ink blots splashed all over the room and on the furniture. Soon after, his mother returned. She saw the mess but she said nothing; instead, she picked up the piece of paper . . . she saw the drawing . . . and then she said, 'Why, it's Sally!' . . . and then she stooped and kissed Benjamin. From that moment on, Benjamin West would say, 'My mother's kiss made me a painter.'

  • Jamie had 'learning difficulties' at school. One day he had a great big smile on his face. He'd never been happier. And when he bounced into the car, he said, 'Mother! Mother! You are not going to believe it, but I got the best part of all in the school play!' And his mother said, 'You did, honey! That's great! That's wonderful! What part is it anyway?' And Jamie said, 'Mom, I've been chosen to clap and cheer for all the others!'


    DISCUSSION STARTERS

    (Allow members of the group to select the questions of most importance to them):

    1. Perhaps someone could be asked to prepare a summary of the life of the New Testament character Barnabas to begin the discussion-time.

    2. Think back to someone - teacher, parent, friend, stranger - who encouraged you and it changed your life. Briefly share your story with the group.

    3. Churches that love their pastors and their families show it. An Anglican congregation had a surprise party for the rector's family, with skits, concert and 'the works', and presented them with a basket of fruit, photo-album of the evening, etc. Tell the group a story about 'the most encouraging thing that's ever happened to me in the church'...

    4. It was said of a greatly loved pastor, 'All his geese are swans'. Think aloud about that...

    5. An old saint said just before she died, 'Keeping your eyes on Jesus is the best way to be encouraged.' What did she mean?

    6. A psychologist comments: 'Our capacity - and hunger - for encouragement depends more than anything else on the "inputs" into our lives from significant others when we were young. Adults live out the positive or negative consequences of their important emotional childhood experiences.' Do you agree with that? What about the slogan, 'It's never too late to have a happy childhood'?

    7. How about this (from a sermon on encouragement on the Web): 'God does not comfort you to make you comfortable, but to make you comforters.'

    8. Some churches print little notepads: 'I just thought of you' or 'A note to encourage you'. What do you think of that? List some strategies to encourage church-folk to encourage one another.

    9. At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). How could they sing in their terrible circumstances? Someone has commented: 'The nightingale sings at night because that's what God designed it to do. When we walk with the Lord, we can have a song even in the midst of trouble. We won't be discouraged by circumstances. Our joy will be in doing what the Savior wants us to do. Our greatest delight will be knowing God and singing of Him, even in the dark.' Too idealistic?

    10. Discuss: 'Genuine praise needs to be distinguished from flattery, the cheap and less meaningful imitation. Flattery is manipulation.'

    11. 'Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.' -- Mark Twain. Easier said than done?

    12. And think about this: 'If I can put one touch of rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman, I shall feel that I have worked with God' .--G. K. Chesterton

    13. Make a (positive) comment or two about these verses: 'Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain' (I Corinthians 15:58). 'The servant does not deserve thanks for obeying orders... It is the same with you; when you have done all you have been told to, say, "We are ordinary servants; we have only done our duty"' (Luke 17:9-10).

    14. Finally this, from a church's bulletin-board: 'The best exercise for strengthening the heart is reaching down and lifting people up.'


    A QUOTE AND A PRAYER:

    'I bet my life on the love of God, the grace of Christ, the promise of a new creation in this capricious, sometimes sad and tragic but ultimately glorious world of God's; and I will stand by to the end no matter what befall, for I am a child of encouragement.'

    Lord, Give me a ministry - not of pulling down, but of building up. Help me to encourage, and to understand others. Give me a ministry - not so much of confrontation, as of reconciliation. Not so much of criticism as of intercession. That life might be a prayer and a benediction for those You love. May I treat each person I meet as if they were Jesus. Amen.


    SOME RESOURCES:

    Larry Crabb and Dan Allender's excellent book Encouragement: The Key to Caring shows how to go beyond 'surface community' to meet the emotional needs of others; how to avoid the pitfalls of manipulation and the 'disease of sharing'- the tendency to 'let it all hang out' with out discretion; the power of a well-timed word.

    Do Yourself A favor - Encourage Your Pastor! This World Vision leadership letter (read it on the John Mark Ministries site) resulted in 600 letters of appreciation!

    AN INSPIRATIONAL STORY

    A man was involved in a terrible accident. When they freed his mangled body, there was so little life left that he was almost given up for dead. But when the surgeons had finished their work there remained only a wreck of a man. Both legs were gone; the left arm was missing together with part of the collar bone. Only a finger and thumb remained on the right hand. There was only enough left of the man that had been, to suffer and remember.

    But he still possessed a brilliant mind, enriched with a good education and broadened with world travel. And it was all wasted. There was nothing he could do but remain a helpless sufferer.

    A thought came to him. It was always nice to receive letters, but why not write them - he could still use his right hand with some difficulty. But who could he write to? Was there anyone shut in and incapacitated like he was who could be encouraged by his letters. He thought of men in prison - they did have some hope of release whereas he had none - but it was worth a try.

    He wrote to a Christian organisation concerned with prison ministry. He was told that his letters could not be answered - it was against prison rules, but he commenced this one sided correspondence.

    He wrote twice a week and it taxed his strength to the limit. But into those letters he put his whole soul, all his experience, all his faith, all his wit, and all his Christian optimism. It must have been hard writing those letters, often in pain, and particularly when there was no reply. Frequently he felt discouraged and was tempted to give it up. But it was his one remaining activity and he resolved to continue as long as he could.

    At last he got a letter. It was very short, written on prison stationery by the officer whose duty it was to censor the mail. All it said was:

    'Please write on the best paper you can afford. Your letters are passed from cell to cell till they literally fall to pieces.'


    THE SIX MOST IMPORTANT WORDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE:

    "I admit I made a mistake."

    The five most important words:

    "You did a good job."

    The four most important words:

    "What is your opinion?"

    The three most important words:

    "If you please. "

    The two most important words:

    "Thank you. "

    The one most important word:

    "We."

    The one least important word:

    "I."
    Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, and you have strengthened the feeble knees. -Job 4:4

    TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR CHURCH PEOPLE

  • DON'T IDEALIZE the church - it's glorious, not because it's perfect (after all, you're in it!), but because it's being redeemed.

  • DON'T CRITICIZE your fellow-believers anytime (unless the church has confirmed your gifts of leadership and discernment) or the pastor (ditto, and never ever before or after a Sunday service: the Devil's already doing that; don't you help him).

  • DON'T POLARIZE in church meetings or committees. 'I don't agree' is very negative: try 'Is there perhaps another way of looking at this?'

  • DON'T OSTRACIZE people whose psychological 'chemistry' is different to yours, or who do not see things your way. Be Christian, and greet them warmly, and pray with them anyway.

  • DON'T IDOLIZE the pastor or any other leader: we are all fellow- strugglers and we all have feet of clay.

  • DON'T MONOPOLIZE conversations: be that kind of rare person who is an empathetic listener.

  • DON'T ORGANIZE anything 'off your own bat'. Initiative is good: initiative plus collaboration plus accountability is better.

  • DON'T 'HOMOGENIZE'. Talk to people who are not your cronies (even tax-collectors and sinners do that). Accept people who are not like you theologically. After all, God's truth may include both your and their understandings!

  • Above all, DON'T VERBALIZE your frustration or negativity about the church to others: it is sure to discourage them. Do it with the Lord, a spiritual director or counselor, and possibly, after much prayer, to a responsible leader. The devil is very clever: he puts words into our mouth like: 'Would you (my friend) pray with me about the problem I have with...'

  • Instead REALIZE that the Church is loved by Christ, so be patient with each other: the Lord hasn't finished with any of us yet!


    ENCOURAGEMENT FROM A MULE

    There was a farmer who owned an old mule. The mule fell into the farmer's well. The farmer heard the mule braying. After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with the mule, but decided that neither the mule nor the well was worth the trouble of saving. Instead, he called his neighbors together and enlisted them to help haul dirt to bury the old mule in the well and put him out of his misery.

    Initially, the old mule was hysterical! But as the farmer and his neighbors continued shoveling and the dirt hit his back, a thought struck him. It suddenly dawned on him that every time a shovel load of dirt landed on his back, he would shake it off and step up! This he did, time after time.

    'Shake it off and step up. Shake it off and step up,' he repeated to encourage himself. No matter how painful the blows, or how distressing the situation seemed, the old mule fought 'panic' and just kept right on shaking if off and stepping up.

    It wasn't long before the mule, battered and exhausted, stepped triumphantly over the wall of that well! What seemed like it would bury him actually helped him... all because of the manner in which he handled his adversity.

    That's like life. If we face our problems and respond to them positively, and refuse to give in to panic, bitterness or self-pity... the adversities that come along to bury us usually have within them the very real potential to benefit us.

    Written by Rowland Croucher, February 2001.

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