I love our church. When I say that, I don’t mean that I simply love our name, building, music, or whatever parts you might consider make up the “church” and its “steeple.” What I love are the hearts of our people, and the love they have for one another. Though I have been a part of many churches, this is the first time that I have experienced the church as a genuine family of families (this new experience is more about my own sanctification than it is about any church’s past failure). This has not resulted from some master leadership plan I had when planting the church. It is a gift from the Spirit of God.
Last week, after what is often coined as another “Sunday hangover”, I lamented about all of the things that I should have said, shouldn’t have said, or would say given another chance in the sermon. This is not an unusual experience and, I am learning, somewhat of an unavoidable one. There never has nor will there ever be a sermon where I walk of the stage like UW’s Isaiah Thomas hitting a clutch shot at the buzzer–nailed it! You will never see me, arm bent back like a gooseneck, walking backwards off of the stage to the roar of the congregation after waxing eloquently for 45 minutes. If you do…run from the church and find one without a prima-dona pastor. In truth, it takes little more than one comment, positive or negative, to catapult a pastor into the Sunday hangover spiral. Both kinds of comments are rooted in the same thing, pride. If someone gives a negative comment, the pastor despairs because denies the POWER of the Holy Spirit to speak, even through the mouth of a jackass (Numbers 22). If someone gives a positive comment, the pastor pridefully admires the power in his own words, all the while denying his NEED for the Holy Spirit. Once the pastor realizes he’s doing either, the hangover commences.
Enough with the self-deprecating downers, this is blog is supposed to be about encouragement. After this past week, I needed encouragement, though I doubt I would have admitted that–too prideful. What began as an email from my bride to a friend, mentioning among other things that I was spending the post-sermon afternoon as “Pastor Poopy Pants”, erupted into a flow of encouraging emails that were, “like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov 16.24). A friend sent one email out, encouraging people to encourage me, then to “pass it on” if they felt so led. Normally, I would dismiss such gestures as manufactured and solicited, but I could not dismiss the love in these words. Many people stopped what they were doing, sat down at a computer, and thoughtfully shared from their hearts. Reading these words could have easily turned my heart to pride but, instead, they soothed what felt like an open wound (perhaps one that had been there for more than a week). The emails, texts, and voice mails poured in, some from good friends, others from acquaintances, all from our family at Damascus Road.
I was, am, humbled to the point of tingles, a tight throat, and tears of joy.
I am learning that encouragement is one of the unheralded, and most important, graces of a gospel community. Encouragement is a tool for protection, healing, and growth. But if you’re anything like me, encouragement does not come naturally. Though I value, perhaps more than anything, being encouraged; that fact that has not motivated me enough to be an encourager. Admittedly, this is a weakness. There are times we all need a Barnabas (Acts 4.36). There are times when we need to be a Barnabas. I am not a natural Barnabas, it takes work, it takes effort, it takes discipline. For a long time I thought I was broken, more of a Bizzaro-Barnabas, not the intentional encourager, but the accidental discourager with the spiritual gift of criticism. In recent times, I have learned that I am simply incomplete–sanctification is God’s means of completing me (though it will never be done until I’m dead). I find that a lot of us are this way, incomplete that is, even the encouraging Barnabas’ of the world. Perhaps what seems like “discouragement” is in fact an effort, and ability, to discern where things need more work–however poorly worded. We find then, that a hyper-critical spirit that sees all weaknesses can be just as bad as a hyper-encouraging spirit that refuses to see any.
All that to say when the New Testament writers charges us to “encourage one another”, this means exactly what I experienced last week. But what if it means more? In other words, there are many ways to encourage people, and we need to endeavor to do them all. There will always be a need to encourage people with words of praise and expressions of gratitude. I hope that, as we love our brothers this way, we will not believe that this is the only kinds of encouragements necessary in a genuine gospel community. I pray that the need to love men through encouragement, doesn’t discourage us from encouraging them to love God–which is the greatest encouragement we could give. In other words, let the end of our encouragement be more than simply to make that other person feel good (which is good), rather, let it be to see God glorified.
To that end, there is much more that we can “encourage” in addition to people praise. We must encourage one another when we fail, to trust in the completed work of Jesus. We must encourage one another, when tempted, to believe in the promises of God more than the promises of sin. We must encourage one another to obey and not sin. We must encourage one another towards good works. We must encourage one another to serve and sacrifice for another. We must encourage one another to pray. We must encourage one another to help carry each other’s burdens. We must encourage people to read God’s Word that they might know God more. We must encourage one another to worship God through every thing they eat, drink, or do. We must encourage one another to be faithful. We must encourage people to confess, repent, and live in the forgiveness of the cross. We must encourage people to trust in the unchanging character of God in the midst of ever-changing circumstances. We must encourage one another to love Jesus more and to love sin less; to love being in and with church more, and to love being alone and independent less. And the list goes on…
And we must encourage one another to actively encourage one another.