When You are Afraid
While I was in worship recently, the Director of Family Ministries invited the children to follow her to Sunday School. She had just delivered an engaging message upon which the rest of the morning promised to build.
Near the chancel in the second pew, there was a family with three girls, the oldest of which popped up and ran off. But the youngest child, who was the last to leave the pew, stalled when she reached the end of it.
She looked around and saw a sanctuary filled with adults wearing variously shaped masks, even as her sisters bounced through the narthex. I would have stalled too had I been her age and alone standing in front of masked strangers.
Take Someone’s Hand
But then she did something that spoke to me. In her fear, she turned toward her parents and stretched out her arm toward them. Even from my pew, I could see her small fingers wiggling and pleading for one of them to take her by the hand, which the father, who was closest to the aisle, jumped up and lovingly did.
Then in an instant, something happened to that little girl. Or should I say “within” her. Her chin came up, her shoulders went back, and she began pulling on her dad’s hand like she was a different person. The simple touch of her father’s hand made all the difference to her. Once afraid, now courageous. Once hesitant, now enthusiastic.
As I watched that exchange, it reminded me of a simple power we all possess, or more accurately, a “superpower.” It is the power of encouragement.
We all know what it feels like when someone says, “You got this!” or “I’m with you!” or “Well done!” Sometimes those words are all we need to make us lift up our chins and pull our shoulders back. But more often than not, it takes someone to hold our hand and walk with us where we are afraid to go.
The word used most often for “encourage” in the New Testament is parakaleó, which is a close relative to the word used for the “Holy Spirit” (Gk. parakletos). It literally means “to call alongside.” It can be translated “counsel, comfort, encourage, appeal, and exhort.” Regardless of how it is translated, it must be significant because it is used over sixty times in the New Testament to describe our potential impact on others.
As the Holy Spirit comes alongside us to be our “Advocate” and “Counselor” (NRSV), so are we called alongside each other to encourage and strengthen each other, especially at moments when we are fearful, discouraged, or lacking initiative.
All the Difference
I think of the time when I was recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery. I was in so much pain I had to sleep sitting up for two weeks. Those of you who have suffered shoulder injuries know what I’m talking about.
But every night my Aunt LaV would sleep in the family room next to me, sitting up in her own recliner, always ready to fetch me water or pain medicines as I needed them. Her presence with me those first few nights, telling me her wild stories, reading to me, and keeping me company until I could bear the pain, made all the difference in my healing.
Or I think of my resistance to activities that I’m convinced are good for me but for which I lack initiative. I can’t count the number of times I have felt like skipping my daily walk. Yet, because my wife says, “Come on. I’ll go with you. You need it,” I have laced up my shoes and headed out. That’s the power of encouragement. It helps us live up to our potential even when our potential feels immediately out of reach.
The Time is Now
If there was ever a time where we needed to encourage each other as siblings in Christ, it is now. The pandemic is surging on and testing our endurance. The joke, “The light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming” is less funny these days.
But God has given us a superpower in the Holy Spirit to encourage each other as we face the challenges of this year. Perhaps that is what it means to be “sanctified,” to have the “One Who Comes Alongside Us” work in us as we come alongside others.
So, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.”
And, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15; 23-24).
Thus begins the “Year of Encouragement.” You heard it here first.
With you on the journey,
Tom Cramer, Co-Executive Presbyter for Vision & Mission