Honey Tastes Better

This week my mind has been turning over a phrase I heard in Sunday's sermon - "the encouraging word." It was used in the context of a message about using our gifts in the church, and it caught my attention, partly because it sounded very familiar but I didn't know why. After a few minutes musing, I realised there was a tune going on in my head - Home on the Range -  which, of course, says that "seldom is heard a discouraging word." I thought, wouldn't it be great  if that could be said about our church family! Then I went back to listening to the sermon. Isn't it interesting the mental and spiritual detours we take while listening to a preacher; I  think it is part of the wonder and mystery of Word and Spirit working together.

I was so intrigued with the notion of "an encouraging word" that I decided that encouragement would be the theme of my post this week. Partly because I think we Kiwis are not very good at it; our Scots and English forebears passed on to us a reticence that often contrasts with the effusiveness of, say, North Americans. And partly because I know it is an area of personal growth for me; temperamentally I am far more likely to see and criticise the weaknesses in a person or event than notice the positive attributes. Interestingly I am not like this with children - my own when they were young, and now my grandkids. I am overwhelming positive and encouraging and feel very protective of their little psyches when other relatives are mean or negative. But I have to be quite intentional about responding like this with adults; my default setting is to spot the shortfall. Hence a week of thinking, reading and writing about encouragement.

The Bible has plenty to say about encouragement. In Paul's circular letter to the churches, he gave some good advice about communication: avoid unwholesome words and focus on constructive conversations. "Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them (Eph 4: 29). Rather than using cutting, bitter or vengeful words, we are invited to build sweetness and harmony with words that "edify," a rather strange biblical word that literally means "to build up."  Words that lift up rather than tear down include gentle words, kind ones, thoughtfulness, and an attitude of respectful curiosity. Gentle words can damp down an emotional situation, when anger is roused or bitter accusation is hurled; "a soft answer turns away wrath."  (Proverbs 15: 1) Kindness refuses to retaliate or recriminate; "be kind to one another, tenderhearted forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven you." (Eph 4: 32). Taking time before answering is another key, especially if like me you are apt to blurt; "the heart of the godly ponders how to answer but the mouth of the wicked overflows with evil words." (Proverbs 15: 28) And openhearted listening promotes respect, understanding and good decision making; "be quick to listen and slow to speak." (James 1: 19)

Most important are the words of appreciation. The New Testament records many such commendations of individuals and communities, even ones that also required some  correction. Paul thanks God for this church or that leader, and promises to pray for them in their work. He clearly did not think this appreciation would lead them into pride; in fact, the opposite is  likely to happen, because people  starved for appreciation can become dependent on self-administered praise, to the point of narcissism. Praise in fact moulds good behaviour, I recall the story of of some research done by educational psychologists in a classroom where the children were prone to walk around the room much more than was acceptable. The researchers measured the baseline of how many times the teacher said "Sit Down," and then got her to increase it fourfold. The walking around actually increased, markedly. They then asked her to stop the commands and simply compliment the children who were staying in their seats. The roaming behaviour was almost halved. "Catch them being good, " we say, "reward the behaviour you want," and that applies just as much with adults as it does with kids. Honey tastes better than vinegar.

The Biblical model of encouragement is Barnabas, whose name means "son of encouragement." In  Acts 4: 36 we are told his name was actually Joseph, but he is called Barnabas everywhere else. In selling some land and sharing it with the leaders, we see how his gift of encouragement has a practical side; he was putting his money where his mouth is, to let them know of his allegiance and support. Later we see him bring the newly-converted  Saul/Paul to the apostles, which suggests he was a man able to look beyond someone's  history and see their potential in God. (Acts 9: 26 -27.) Encouragement involves acceptance of even those with a dodgy background; when disgraced politician Chuck Colson came to faith, there were many who scoffed, but the encouragement of others held him firm and so came into being a great international movement, the Prison Fellowship. In other places in Acts we see Barnabas helping individuals grow in faith, and seeing to the needs of the wider church; in each case, he is more interested in the mission of Jesus Christ than in making a name for himself. Would that we all could have that said of us. But the fact is we don't usually think about affirming the good we see in others. We usually wait till their funeral to say how much we value their contribution!  I am sure I am not the only minister  who was shocked at the positive things said at a farewell from a ministry role, when the verbal feedback in recent years had been largely negative. 

I personally thrive on affirmation and encouragement, and over the years  have kept little bits of paper with words that I experienced as encouraging. The article from a Whangarei newspaper where MP (at the time) John Banks singled me out in praise of the way I handled a Girls' Brigade event. The butterfly brought back from a youth camp, where everyone had written positive comments on a cardboard shape named for each person and pinned on a bulletin board. The letter from one of my elders, affirming my non-partisan leadership, after we had participated in a gruelling governance decision. If these words are precious to me -a person with good qualifications and a robust self esteem - how much more important are they to those who are not sure of themselves and don't see the gifts they bring to a church family. One of the things I have done - and should do more often - is to keep a little pile of inspirational cards (the kind you get at the Christian bookshop) in my desk. Now and again I will send one of these to someone,  not at a critical moment  but more as random act of kindness, to remind them of God's care and to tell them how much  I/we appreciate them. Often  people will come back to me and say how it really hit the spot. But if I had to go out and buy the card, specially, or make one, I wouldn't get round to it so often. 

Words of affirmation, says Gary Chapman, are a love language. They fill up our emotional tank. Would that our home and our church  could be filling stations where people could receive the encouragement and affirmation they hunger for, and where each one of us could be a son or daughter of encouragement.

To Chew Over: is there someone to whom you could send a note or a card this week, to let them know you love and  value them? 

Courage, brother, do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night;
There’s a star to guide the humble:
Trust in God and do the right.
Let the road be rough and dreary,
And its end far out of sight,
Foot it bravely; strong or weary,

Trust in God, trust in God,
Trust in God and do the right.

Norman McLeod