Encouragement Skill #8

VALIDATE!  DON’T HUMOR!

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.  Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.  Proverbs 25:11-12

Jesus was a truth teller and Jesus didn’t sugar coat it.  He told it the way it needed to be told.  But He was Truth and He was also Grace so He knew perfectly how to marry the two.  I can call myself a lover of truth but, then in situations where my gift of mercy goes askew, I sometimes tone the truth down so that it isn’t more painful than it has to be.  In some cases, like in the following story with my mother, I could have easily invalidated what was true.

My mother had been battling cancer for more than a year.  She was painfully thin.  Nonetheless, on a weekend when our family was able to visit, she insisted on making the effort to go to church with us.  My mother, not a complainer about anything and prone to suffer silently to a fault, surprised me when she blurted out in frustration.  She had put on her favorite dress, looked at herself in the mirror, and said to me as I stood in the doorway, “Look at me!  I’m a bag of bones in this dress.”  I wanted so much to protest.  “No, no, Mom.  You look beautiful in the dress.”  I caught myself before answering poorly.  I said, “I’m sorry you don’t look like you want to look in the dress.  These changes have to be horribly painful and I’m so sorry.”  

A believer in the midst of a very painful journey usually has a clear vision of this world.  What was once murky gray has become black and white.  What is frivolous doesn’t appeal.  What is most important becomes most precious.  And in the process of seeing life more clearly than most everyone else, they make truthful statements about life, Christianity, people, and religion that are usually true.  Their statements sound blunt and stark. Our first reaction is to protest, to soften it, thinking we are lessening the pain of what they’re vocalizing.  However, in protesting, we are not helping.  We are making it worse by accentuating their feelings of isolation.  Even if the truth was said in anger, there are ways we can validate them without matching their angst.  Not without prayerful wisdom though.  Jesus will give us words that smooth their ragged edges with grace.

God values truth and I should value truth and affirm it when it is spoken.  At times it will make me squirm.  It will challenge the common everyday deception that stares me in the face that I don’t see yet because I haven’t walked in their shoes.  Their statements will most often depict the hopelessness of this world, the futility of living life poorly, and can sound like the ‘last word’ of the day.  But after listening, after offering empathy first before words, after giving a creative gift, and laying a foundation of true friendship, there will be a time for me to frame their truthful words with the ‘hope that lies before us.’

Lord, I don’t want to fill the air with my words.  I want apples of gold to come forth – truth with grace, truth with mercy.  Amen

Encouragement Skill #7

NETWORK WITH OTHER SURVIVORS

Our healing is never just for us. “God comforts us in all our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affiliation with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort.  II Corinthians 1:4-6

Paul, through every persecution he endured, found perspective and strength knowing that his suffering was more than just about Him.  It was too know Jesus better but it was also to help others.  The only way he, or I, can ever empathize with another person is to have gone through the same thing ourselves.  Human beings are intuitive creatures and we know when someone is speaking to us beyond their ability to understand.  The words sound hollow and the wisdom is usually trite.

If the best one to reach someone in pain is another who has survived the same pain, that should give me direction in knowing how to reach out to people I love with whom I can’t relate.  If I have not experienced what they are enduring, there is someone not too far away who has.  My role would be to network them.  Introduce them.  Plan a lunch or an afternoon just to hang out.  The survivor will quickly discern the needs of the one who is currently in the fire.

Each of us suffers but we have never suffered in all the ways one can suffer.  I don’t know how to relate to another mother who has a child with cancer.  I don’t know how to reach out to parents who are grieving their grown children’s sexuality.  I may not know how to truly empathize with someone who is surviving domestic violence.  I know that my encouragement can only go so far.  Knowing that, I ask God to do what only He can do by bringing someone to mind, to bring another child of God across my path who has endured a similar thing.  The resource may not even be a flesh and blood person, but a book.  God knows what they need.

For every kind of pain, there is a specific kind of comfort only God can fashion through the life of a saint who has walked this road before.  People who haven’t been through pain and suffering don’t usually write books about pain and suffering!  It would be a dry treatise and no help to anyone.  To take this further, if you have been through something awful with your faith in tact, if you have dug deeply into Christ for the treasures of wisdom, you have an audience.  Someone is waiting for you.  Someone is praying that someone like you exists to help them.  You can come to see the miraculous. What is that?  To experience what it’s like to see something that has been so bitter to your soul take on bittersweet properties.  Eventually, maybe even more sweet than bitter.

Network, network, network.  There is someone out there who is the answer to someone else’s prayer.  Maybe it’s you.

Bring your church together for purposes beyond what we’ve ever experienced.  Amen

Encouragement Skill #6

CREATE A MILESTONE

A milestone is anything I can put on my hurting friend’s calendar that, when they see it, will  cause them to say, “I can make it until July  because I’ll get to go do ‘that’.’  The ‘that’ could be a picnic, a lunch, a concert, a trip.  The power of a milestone can’t be underestimated.

My sister, Nancy, spent some time in medical school on the island of Grenada during the time my mother was battling cancer.  For those of you near or around my age, you probably recall what happened in the early 80’s with the events on Grenada.  There was an attempted ‘coup’ on the island, widespread bloodshed, and the students and faculty of the American Medical School there were in harms way.  There was a short window of time for our military to go in and evacuate the several hundred Americans.  My sister was one of the last to board a military chopper inside the hot zone.  She had been trapped on another part of the island with a few other students and it took a while for our soldiers to find them and secure the area.   All this time, our family was glued to the news programs, waiting to see pictures of my sister getting off the C140 airlift plane at Fort Bragg, NC.  Finally, days after the evacuation started, she made it.

I’d like to tell you what was happening to my mother.  Her health and strength had regressed and she spent much of her days sleeping.  However, when Nancy was scheduled to come home, her strength revived.  The morning my sister was to arrive by plane, my mother got up, showered, put on a nice outfit, and looked/acted completely healthy.  She not only went to the airport but kept up (for a time) with all the celebrations and outings that were given in honor of my Nancy’s homecoming.  How could she do that?  Because of the power of a milestone.  It was life giving.

What is it you can plan for someone who is declining, one who is losing hope?  Maybe it’s to keep a single mother’s child for a day or a weekend.  Maybe it’s to take someone who is housebound on a long drive through the country.  Maybe it’s to take a music lover to a symphony.  Maybe it’s to treat someone to a nice lunch at their favorite restaurant.  Maybe it’s to take someone suffering from Alzheimers on a walk outdoors.  We take for granted the freedom to get out of the house, get some fresh air and feel energized.  The goal is to offer something that will help someone in decline, physically or emotionally, rally for a time because they have something to look forward to.

The Apostle Paul told the church leaders at Ephesus these parting words.  “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”  Acts 20:36   To remember the weak, the frail, the sick, the orphans and widows…we are not only inviting the favor of God on our lives but we bestow the favor of God on theirs!  When the milestone is behind them, it is not over for them.  They re-live it as a defining moment when God’s presence intersected their lives at a time when they probably felt forgotten.

Lord, show me what to do and for whom to do it.  Amen

Encouragement Skill #5

GIVE CREATIVE GIFTS

Some years ago, I recall reading about a professional violinist named Ed Stanistreet. As he aged, arthritis crippled his fingers, causing him to lose agility and technical ability.  He retired from the symphony but didn’t lay down his instrument.  He loved music and knew its ability to touch people.  So, several mornings a week, he’d board a bus in downtown Philadelphia, go to the local hospital, take the elevator up to the neonatal floor, and play for the preemies. No matter our age, no matter our challenges, no matter our financial constraints, there are always things we can do to reach out and touch others.

When my mother lived out her two year battle with cancer, I was blessed to live less than two hours away and could visit her every few weeks. On those days, I made a habit of stopping at a store in upstate New York called The Silver Strawberry.  It was the place to go if you needed silk or dried flowers, baskets, pots and mosses.  My mother liked to go and browse there, often coming home with the makings for a small flower arrangement.  When she was no longer able to easily leave the house, I created a ritual for our visits.  I’d stop at the store on the way to visit her and purchase everything we’d need to create an arrangement together.  This became our shared experience for the day.  She’d have the coffee ready when I pulled in the yard.  As she became too weak to participate, she’d take a nap, I’d make the arrangement by myself, and watch her face get excited when it was time to see it.

Creative gifts do more than make momentary impacts.  The meaning attached to the gifts can give strength for days and years to come.  As you read and think about all of this, consider the interests of the person you’re trying to encourage.  What is their favorite artist, classical composer, garden flower, painter, dessert choice, even fresh fruit choice when the growing season is right?  Oftentimes, our best creative gift originates from our natural or spiritual giftedness.  I consider the value of David’s gift to a tormented King Saul.  I Sam. 16  “Whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand.  So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.  How unique was that!  Music was then, and still is, a way to bring God’s whispers to hurting souls without a need for words. Being a musician, I have sung over the phone to someone more than a half dozen times or brought my flute to play at someone’s bedside.

Any kind of gesture, big or small, prompted by the Spirit of God, will be accompanied by the Spirit’s energizing work and power.  If my idea is birthed and bathed in prayer, it has the potential to leave someone feeling that Jesus, Himself, has come personally to express His love to them.  Whether a pretty mug with a peach tea bag in it, a poem, or a well-timed prayer, God is hoping we will really believe that we are His hands and feet.

You are a creative God.  Help me think and pray outside the box. Bless even what feels radical.  Amen

Encouragement Skill #4

REACH OUT IN PRIVATE

We are most free when away from the public eye.  When someone really touches another’s heart, they do it in private when their defenses are down.  The problem is, we rarely reach out to each other privately.  We’re accustomed to meeting up across the sanctuary, or in a lobby, or in a grocery store.  We ask the other person how they are doing and assure them we have been thinking about them and praying for them.  It is only mildly comforting.  Those same words would have been so much more effective if we’d put them in a card and mailed it, or delivered a batch of muffins to their door and spoken the same words.

In 1982, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  A year later, Ron’s mother dropped dead unexpectedly and mine lost her battle with cancer nine months later.  We said goodbye to both mothers within a year of each other.  Our loss was staggering.  We were young and both unequipped to know how to walk that journey which included grieving.

One morning, I was home vacuuming and the phone rang.  It was an older woman from our congregation whom I had seen on Sunday.  She usually made a habit of speaking to me.  On this weekday though, she made an unforgettable gesture and offered enduring words. This is what she said.  “I was going about my day, Christine, and it hit me that you and Ron are losing both your mothers at the same time.  I stopped what I was doing to take that in. That’s crushing and so much to deal with for a young married couple.  I don’t have any magic words but I wanted you to know that I noticed, I am hurting with you, and I care.”   I thanked her, I was awkward, but oh did it mean a lot to me.  Here’s the thing ~ if she had said those same things in the church lobby the Sunday before, it wouldn’t have made the impact it did on a Tuesday because she had stopped her routine, thought about us, and made the effort to reveal that.

Some things can only be done effectively in private.  I think about Joseph who was overcome by the sight of his brothers after so many years apart.  He was Vice-chancellor of Egypt but they didn’t yet know it was him.  Joseph was trying to contain his emotions at the sight of them; understandable since they were the very ones who had treated him cruelly and sold him into slavery.  So he excused himself from the feast and here’s the verse that references it.  Genesis 43:30  Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep.  So he entered his chamber and wept there.

Why do I reach out to others publicly?  It’s safe, convenient, and emotionally protective but it shouldn’t be about me.   The most honest pain someone else feels is what they feel in private. When they are approached there, I will probably access their authentic selves and the part of them that is potentially raw.  I need to know that I don’t have to eloquent, just real.

So make a note on Sunday of who it is that needs encouragement and send yourself a text reminder.  Then, ask God how to express love and care sometime that week. The sky’s the limit for ways to reach the heart where Jesus can leave His imprint.

How many people did you talk to privately?  You waited until they were alone – even the Samaritan woman at the well.  You risked both your reputations.  Guide my creativity as I think of being more vulnerable and personal.  Amen

Encouragement Skill #3

#3.) SHARE THEIR LOSSES

It’s easy to get stuck in grief. It’s inevitable if I’m a loner and never talk about my loss with someone.  It stays an untold story in my head that swims around in a pool of sadness.  Everyone needs to share their losses.  To do that, we need people who love us enough to ask questions, listen well, respect our silence if we need more time, and those who will empathize and not try to shut our grief down with a pep talk.

When we consider the well known phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss,” the context is usually a funeral.  There are so many other kinds of losses to be grieved though.  Loss of a home, loss of a job, loss of good health, loss of a marriage, loss of the ability to bear children, loss of trust, even loss of innocence.  With each kind there is grieving to be done.

To listen to someone who is grieving, two things are necessary.  1.) I must be willing to engage even if I’m unsure how to respond.   2.) I must believe that it’s good for them to speak of these painful things.   While I can agree that it’s important, I still avoid bringing up painful topics at all costs.  Think of what happens when the funeral is over.  It’s six months after, a year after.  How many will tell a grieving widow how much they loved her husband and miss him?  It’s considered a touchy subject, a hot topic, one to avoid, one that will make the widow break down and cry.   We must ask, and that’s a bad thing?  What’s the alternative?  To invite her to some social events to try to cheer her up?

After my mother died (I was 30 years old), I witnessed how few spoke of her even though she was well loved.  One day, I happened to run into one of her friends in the post office.  She saw me and started to cry.  After composing herself, she said ~ “I miss your mother.  It’s August and this is the time of year we’d pick blueberries together.  We knew all the best places for wild berries on these mountains.”  Did her story make me cry?  Yes, I bawled when I got in the car.  But because this woman shared my loss, I was really comforted.  I kept saying to myself, “Oh, thank goodness, someone else misses her too.”  

As long we we are afraid to bring up the topic of someone’s loss, they will grieve alone. They are denied telling the stories that give release to their sadness.  And, they are denied digging deeply to discover the words they might not even know are there. Their feelings stay stuck in a wordless place, never finding a voice.

After Lazarus’ death, Jesus came days later. Though He knew Lazarus would live again, He didn’t reveal that in the midst of the sisters’ grieving.  He could have said, “Don’t cry. I’m going to fix this.”  But He entered into their loss, listened to their complaint, and heard the accusation about the timing of His arrival.  Then He was deeply troubled in spirit ~ then He wept ~ and then He performed a resurrection.  Sharing their loss pre-empted the miracle.

Lord, I need not fear other’s tears, nor my own.  I’m willing to face what’s uncomfortable.  Amen