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

Encouragement Skill #2

2.) GIVE EMPATHY FIRST, ANSWERS LAST

No one in distress cares about how much we know until they know that we care about how they feel.  You believe that?  When you are hurting, do you want a treatise on pain and suffering or do you want someone who will try to understand what your heart is feeling?  John Piper says, “There’s a time for words and a time for tears.”   And this is from a theologian who learned this through decades of pastoring as he left his study to enter the drama of human lives.

As I always should, I look to Jesus to show me how He gave empathy first and answers last.  The most obvious story is the one where Jesus wept tears of grief at the gravesite of His friend, Lazarus.  He didn’t give a eulogy about Lazarus or a sermon on death’s curse. He heard the wailing and entered in to weep deeply with Mary and Martha.  Jesus is our great High Priest.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Hebrews 4:15  What’s comforting about that is Jesus knows how I feel because He subjected Himself to life in this world.  He could have stayed in heaven, continued to inspire writers to pen scripture, and assure mankind that He knows how the human body handles pain because He created us.  That would have been only mildly comforting. He knew I needed more than a God who just understands how I am wired. I needed an Emmanuel who would show me that He understands the complex emotional landscape of human beings.  As the incarnate God, He modeled a rich emotional life with displays of grief, joy, and everything in between. I am a stoic by comparison.

It is easier to give answers instead of empathy.  I can deliver a few well crafted lines about pain and walk away without the slightest fatigue.  I won’t feel spent nor will I carry the hurts of the people I love with me. But that’s not how Jesus lived. Ministry to others drained Him.  His investment was costly.  When the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch the hem of His garment, He knew it immediately because He felt power go out of Him.  After extended periods of ministry, He was depleted. He went off alone to pray and rest.

As you read this today, perhaps you are feeling the drain of loving someone well.  You have invested your heart over time and it has taken its toll.  This devotional is not to tell you to step away and to stop caring so much ~ though you need periods of rest.  It’s quite the opposite.  It’s to validate your weariness and commend you for being like Jesus.  Each of us must build a bridge of friendship before others will trust our words.  Without a heart connection that is built by compassion, there is little credibility to preach a sermon. Empathy opens their heart for truth that comes later.  Henri Nouwen wrote, “Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”  

Father God, make us a kingdom of priests after the order of Christ Jesus, our High Priest.

Encouragement Skill #1

1.) LET THEM KNOW THEY’RE NOT ALONE

Just hours after the towers fell on 9/11, a recovery team heard cries for help and discovered part of a stairwell that had survived surprisingly in tact.  They found a half dozen people huddled  (all strangers before that morning) and embracing each other as hours before, everything around them roared and crumbled.  This shows us in a stunning way that when hard times come, we need to know that we are not alone.

Pain isolates us from other people and we begin to believe that no one has ever gone through what we are experiencing and that what we are feeling is unique.  We feel lonely.  Is there anything worse than believing you are alone and no one cares or understands?

God made us for community, not isolation.  He created us to be interdependent, not independent.  While we are not to be parasitic, we can humble ourselves to need others in a healthy way. It’s possible to need God and people.  Needing another to walk beside us doesn’t mean that our faith is not enough.  It means that we know God often expresses Himself through another believer.

Perhaps you are already fully engaged in this series because you love and care for people. You’re already thinking about a way to communicate to them that they do not suffer alone.  There are many ways to say it and show it.  Send a card, or a text, and know that just one line can make such a difference in someone’s survival.  Examples ~

  • Though I don’t always tell you, God brings you to my mind so often and I pray for you.
  • I struggle to find the words to tell you that my heart hurts when you are hurting.  
  • I woke up in the night thinking about you.  Though we are apart, in Christ we are connected. 
  • As I prayed for you, Jesus gave me a heart for you and what you are going through.  I felt the heaviness of your situation.

A neonatal nurse who worked in a pediatric hospital once told the story of twin boys who were born early, each under three pounds.  They were placed together in an incubator.  One was healthier than the other and the prognosis for the smaller child was poor.  One morning when the nurse came in to start her shift, she noticed that the strong brother had his arm wrapped around the weak one.  This happened more than once over the next few weeks and the weak one lived.

Paul the apostle is usually perceived as someone strong and independent, yet he said of a woman named Pheobe, Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to meRomans 16:2  We’re not told what Phoebe did but however she expressed God’s care, it imparted supernatural strength to Paul.

How will you let your hurting friend know they are not alone today?  Ask God to give you just the right words.

Really Reaching Those Who Hurt

Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road?   Luke 24:32

I know how I feel when the Spirit of God speaks to me.  It’s especially meaningful when I need Him the most.   It’s wonderful, it’s convicting, it even causes me to ache for my future home with Jesus. I bet I feel like the group Luke describes.  They were walking down the road; Jesus showed up and began to share with them.  They didn’t recognize Him until afterward when they reviewed how they had felt when He spoke to them.  They described the experience like this ~’Did our hearts not burn within us as He talked?.’

What is it your hurting friend needs most? I often struggle to know how to reach out, having exhausted all my creativity to make a dent in their place of pain.  But really, what they need is a word, a touch, from Jesus.  When we speak, or sit beside them, or send a card, or extend meaningful touches, we should leave them feeling that something sacred occurred.  The memory of us being there should be akin to feeling that their ‘heart burned within them.’

This series will explore twelve creative ways to extend encouragement. Each suggestion helps lay a groundwork for God to show up.  So, who is it for whom your heart aches?  Who is it that has drained you of internal resources?  Who is it that is no longer affected by anything you do or say and you wonder what you should do next?  There are things we can do and there are things we can say.  Gestures will only make a spiritual impact if the Spirit has fueled them.  Over the next two weeks, I’ll be offering one suggestion a day.  Think of it.  That person you care about, the one who has shut himself or herself away into a place that is hard to reach, they just might feel Jesus’ touch.

Twelve encouragement skills can be perceived as twelve formulas.  Know that they are not and I need to qualify something. You and I can’t give away what we first don’t posses for ourselves!  If I don’t work out my own theology of pain and God’s sovereignty, I will not be able to provide the deep soul care others need despite my best efforts.  My words will ring hollow and they will be able to see through me.  Credibility builds a successful bridge.

Someone who knows Jesus well can say just a few words and I’m changed.  Someone who has not been with Jesus in a long time, and exerts effort from their own heart, can say a hundred words and fail to move me.  I received a note some time back from someone I hadn’t seen in a while.  The note simply said, “He has heard your cry.”  This note came on a day when I had asked the Lord if He was listening.  I was discouraged, weary in prayer, so for this note to arrive meant a lot to me.  The one who wrote it was undoubtedly nudged by God to write just one sentence.  She was obedient.  Five words, Spirit-driven, gave me my breakthrough.

Prepare our ears, then our hands, to do Your work of compassion.  Amen