The Heart of Encouragement

John was fifteen when he was confirmed in the local Presbyterian Church, in Canterbury sometime in the sixties. Part of the preparation process was a personal interview with his minister, the night before the service. The candidate before him came out weeping, and John entered the minister's study with great trepidation. He was led in a period of confessional prayer, which consisted of the minister naming a whole raft of sins, to which John was to respond, "Lord I confess that sin" if he knew of an occasion when he had erred in that way. Most of the transgressions named were way beyond John's understanding, and he just listened as the cleric waded through a raft of grave offences, including that of "spilling his seed upon the ground"! John felt more and more anxious as the list grew longer, until finally when the minister asked about taking the Lord's name in vain, he was able to splutter with great relief, "Lord I confess that sin."

John is now in his sixties, and he looks back on that day with sadness."Wouldn't it have been better", he said to a group of Christian educators the other day, "if that man had said, Let's give thanks for all the goodness you have experienced in your life, for all the ways you have sensed God's love and all the people who have shown the way of Christ to you? What better preparation for the rite of confirming one's baptism - the call to be a disciple - than to recall how God has been at work in and around you since birth?" I was sitting with an old friend who is a school chaplain, and I commented to him: "I don't want to entirely do away with the notion of 'original sin' but, like John, I am keen to keep it in tension with 'original blessing'." My friend is Open Brethren from a long time back, but he heartily agreed.

I thought about that tension as I listened to the Sunday sermon at our church this week. Our theme was Words of Encouragement, and our Biblical focus the New Testament character Barnabas. We were reminded from Acts 4:36 that this disciple was actually Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, but that the apostles called him Barnabas, which means Son of Encouragement. Our preacher led us through a series of passages from Acts to show how Barnabas had earned that title. He had been the one to follow through with Saul (who became Paul) in a time when the other followers of Jesus were suspicious about this former persector of the church. Although this former Pharisee claimed to have had his life turned round by his Damascus Road experience of the Risen Christ, he had not at first been received warmly into the fellowship. The leaders in Jerusalem were afraid, no doubt suspecting he was a Jewish infiltrator, and it took a personal introduction and recommendation from Barnabas, who had heard him preaching in Damascus, for the apostles to embrace Paul as a brother in Christ. Barnabas was able to see potential when others only saw problems, and his advocacy was a critical step in advancing the gospel of which Paul was to be such a powerful communicator.

Later in Acts we again see Barnabas taking a risk, when he is willing to travel and serve with John Mark, who had in some way let down or alienated Paul and Silas. Paul and Barnabas' sharp disagreement on the issue of John Mark's reliability meant they parted company for a time. However, both teams were able to continue to spread the message of Jesus, and later in the New Testament we see evidence that John Mark has been reintegrated into the trusted band of apostolic leaders. Barnabas was the one who saw John Mark's giftedness and potential rather than the problems he had caused. I guess we could say he saw with the eyes of Christ, eyes of compassion and grace.

This model of encouragement - seeing in broken people the image and potential of God rather than focussing on their sin - came up again for me two days later, when I heard Tapu Misa tell her faith story at a Pastor's conference here in Auckland. Popular Herald columinst Misa is a Samoan-born journalist, as well as a wife and mother, and she told her story with the wry humour and piercing insight of one who has been in NZ for 42 years and in Samoan churches all her life. Raised in the old style Island religion, where women and children were often silenced spectators, Misa got bored with church in her teens and departed with others in her family to pursue a different path. Her mother though, never stopped praying for her to reconnect with God, and after her mother's death, Tapu embarked on what was, at first, an intellectual search for spriritual truth. She came to a place of certainty about the Christian gospel and the historical Jesus, and through an Alpha course experienced a rich emotional dimension to her 'conversion'. At the end of her talk, pastors asked her a variety of questions about her role in the print media and as a longtime member of the Broadcasting Standards Authority. All through her carefully-worded responses wound a plea to present ourselves and Jesus as one full of love and compassion and not to emphasise sin, judgement and negativity to the degree that is often seen in the media. She didn't use that metaphor, but I sensed she too has learned to see herself and others through "the eyes of Christ."

I'm back to where I started this post. John from Canterbury, who is well versed in the spirituality of the Celts, and has written several books of poem prayers, concluded his presentation with some inspiring words from, I think, John O'Donohue.
"God you look on us wth tenderness and delight, Help us to see ourselves (and others) in the same light of grace and hope, Amen."
And a quote from Meister Eckhart - "If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, that would suffice.”
To Chew Over: Do you see yourself with that tenderness and delight?
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
In my heart from hour to hour,
So that all may see I triumph
Only through His power.
May the peace of God my Father
Rule my life in everything,
That I may be calm to comfort
Sick and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me
As the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing,
This is victory.
May I run the race before me,
Strong and brave to face the foe,
Looking only unto Jesus
As I onward go.
May His beauty rest upon me,
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.