Many years ago I pastored a large, mostly-white, downtown congregation in Charlotte, even as, simultaneously, I was also the Director of Missions for a small but thoroughly multi-cultural Baptist Association. I had a vision: I wanted our little Association to sponsor a summer-long Bible School for inner city children in Charlotte, drawing upon the resources of every church in our Association to make it happen. Establishing and administering that summer-long Vacation Bible School was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Every day raised questions I had not anticipated, every day brought challenges I had not expected, every day embroiled me in bruising controversies and conflicts that by mid-summer had left me distraught and exhausted. During that time a friend of mine in the congregation sent me an encouraging little note, and attached to it a rolodex card that said, “Hang in there, Brother Richard.” To my dark and desiccated soul that little rolodex card was like a beam of light, filling me with hope. I taped it to my desk, and I looked at it every day. It testified to how even a small gesture can convey the power of encouragement.
When you are a pastor, you have many mamas, whether you want them or not. One of my many mamas noticed that when I drove into the parking lot I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. She pulled me aside and said, “You need to wear your seat belt – all of the time.” She told me of a close friend whose death would have been prevented had he worn his seat belt. I’d heard such stories before, but for some reason this time that word of admonition and encouragement stuck. I thought, “My children are young, and it would be shameful to leave them fatherless by a preventable death.” So I began wearing my seat belt faithfully. Her word of encouragement caused me to change a habit.
Not long after I had begun my ministry in that particular pastorate I found myself frustrated with the pace of our congregational progress. I had so many ambitious projects in mind, yet for every two steps we as a church took forward, we seemed to take one step back. I suppose my frustration was evident to others, because one day a wise old man dropped by my office to say, “Young man, I want to remind you of something.” He started flexing his index finger forward and back, forward and back. Then he said, ”The inchworm has a way of making progress, but the inchworm’s progress in moving forward involves the process of sliding a little bit back with every forward movement.” That simple, child-like metaphor of an inchworm that slides a little back with every forward movement released a reservoir of internal frustration within me and filled me with hope. That simple metaphor of the inchworm spoke to my heart about the power of encouragement.
When we look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are not surprised to find Paul writing encouragement to his beloved flock there. So we find Philippians 2 beginning, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” We expect Paul to be constantly encouraging the various flocks that he helped bring into being. But we are somewhat surprised to find Paul acknowledging later in this letter how much their encouragement bolstered his spirit. In Philippians 4 we find Paul confessing, “It was kind of you to share in my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the Gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving except you only; even in Thessalonica you sent me help once and again.”
Obviously, the church at Philippi was concerned for Paul in his imprisonment. They appreciated the difficulty and strain of his ambitious ministry. So they had sent him an emissary with a love offering to strengthen him in his time of need. That care package of encouragement reminded Paul of a time early in his ministry when, at a critical juncture, the Philippian church had invested in him when no one else would. At a critical juncture in his ministry, the Philippian church had sent him a gift by which they conveyed the vital message, ‘You are not alone. We are in this venture with you.’ There is a certain profound symmetry in their action, because the very existence of the church at Philippi started with Paul’s taking an interest in a young woman upon whom he had no reason to show compassion. Paul had intersected a young woman who was obviously mentally ill, and he took pity on her and invoked God’s healing upon her. For this act of compassion he was arrested, cruelly flogged and manacled in prison. But then an earthquake loosened his chains and the chains of all the prisoners, and the jailer was so sure that everyone had fled, he prepared to take his life, only to have Paul shout this word of encouragement: “Do yourself no harm! We are all here! You are not alone!” That jailer realized, here was a man who cared more for his jailer’s welfare than he did for his own. That jailer embraced the Gospel of Christ that night, and he and all his household were baptized. The church at Philippi was thus established. I would like to think that the Philippian church’s encouragement of Paul throughout his ministry rooted in the gratitude of that jailer whom Paul first encouraged when he had every reason not to do so.
Words of encouragement have real power. Words of encouragement answer the logic and impulse of love. A single Rolodex card can lift a person out of despair. A single admonition can change a habit. The simple metaphor of an inchworm can release one from the darkness of his own mind. Words of encouragement have the power to transform a life. This truth was brought home to me a few years ago when a former church asked me to come back to speak, a task I always dread, because invariably someone will come up to me and ask, “You don’t remember me, do you?” A young man came up and asked precisely this question, and I had to admit to him that indeed, I didn’t. Then he said, “Eight years ago you preached a sermon in which you began by talking about you and your wife losing a baby to miscarriage. We had just gone through that same experience, and when you started speaking, my wife started crying, and I thought ‘We’re never going to make it through this sermon.’ But then you spoke words of hope that movingly conveyed encouragement, and you challenged people not to give in to despair. Your words brought hope to our hearts. So we went home and started “trying again.” He motioned to two beautiful young children and said, “There are the results of your inspiration.” Words of encouragement can bring light into darkness, can change a habit, can even cause people to alter the direction of a life that they thought was fixed and fated.
I have no doubt that one reason Paul practiced a ministry of encouragement was because his own ministry rooted in the encouragement of two people who had no reason to show compassion upon him. When he had been struck blind by the light of Christ on the road to Damascus, when he found himself shut up in a strange room, sightless, purposeless, clueless as to what he should do next, a Christian named Ananias, who had no reason to show love toward this known persecutor of the church, came and lay hands upon Saul and said, “Brother Saul” – and the scales fell from his eyes. Soon thereafter Saul, now Paul, went to Jerusalem, brimming with enthusiasm, eager to share his testimony with the Christian leaders of that city – and they all shunned him. But along came a guy named Joe, who was known to everybody by his nickname, “Barnabas,” the “son of encouragement.” Joe took Paul by the hand and introduced him to all of the Christian leaders and vouched for the authenticity of his conversion when he had no reason to do so.
I suspect that every single one of us knows that our faith has been molded by the encouragement of others, even by the encouragement of people who had no reason to take interest in us. Paul even encouraged the very Roman soldiers who were chained to him. How many of us as we go throughout our lives, in our businesses, in our grocery stores, in our neighborhoods, in our ballfields, find ourselves rubbing shoulders with people whose lives cry out for a word of encouragement, who in their desperation and distress are looking for someone to take an interest in them, even though they know others do not have to do so. You and I have been given a power, the power to alleviate other people’s pain, to uplift them from darkness. You and I have been granted a ministry that can enable us to resurrect a person from despair, to change a life, to change a habit, to alter an attitude. God has empowered us with the ability to speak a word of encouragement to those in need. How often do we speak it? So many people around us are crying out for attention, crying out for someone else to say, ‘Your life matters to someone besides yourself.’ How many of us come out of ourselves enough to find a person on the perimeter of our community and speak a word of inclusion?
For many years professional and amateur golfers alike sought out the nurture of one of the world’s great golf teachers, an old man named Harvey Penick. Harvey Penick was known for his consistently positive approach to teaching. He never ever used the word, “choke” even with regard to gripping the club. He’d say instead, “Why don’t you grip down on the shaft?” He would never say to students, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that.’ Instead he would say, “Why don’t we substitute this for what you are doing?” The famous golfing teacher was asked why he always accentuated the positive, and Penick responded: “The golfing area of the brain is a fragile thing, terribly susceptible to suggestion.” So, too, the soul is a fragile thing also, terribly and wonderfully susceptible to suggestion, but especially susceptible to words of invitation, inclusion, hope, joy and affirmation.
Six months after that self-appointed mama offered me the unsolicited encouragement to start using my seat belt every time I entered an automobile, I was rear-ended by an inattentive driver, a collision that sent me careening into a ditch. The collision totaled my car. I am here today because of that woman’s word of encouragement. Wearing that seatbelt saved my life. A word of encouragement has the power to change a habit, change an attitude, transform a life – or even save it.
Over the years I have often been asked, “Dr. Kremer, when did you know that you would become a preacher?” I tell them that it was when my guidance counselor told me I was unfit for all other employment. But the truth is, looking back, I have come to realize that the moment when I understood the Lord could make some use of me came when I was a college junior. It was about two a.m., I was sound asleep, and my phone rang. The voice on the other end said, “I need you to meet me downstairs. Can you come talk to me?” The truth is, I didn’t know this young man very well, but he knew that I was a Christian, knew that I always managed to make it to church on Sunday – it doesn’t take much on a college campus to be seen as a ‘saint,’ even at the University of Georgia. So I wearily crawled out of bed, went downstairs and met this young man who said, “Let’s take a walk across campus.” We did so, and he poured out his life to me, confessing that he had lost his way in life, that he had lost hold of all his dreams and was without hope. He felt he had no future and didn’t know what to do. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but I do remember saying to him, “I do know that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And I know that if you are open to it, God’s grace will be sufficient for you through this crisis and beyond.” We walked, we talked, we cried, we prayed, and I bid him goodbye and crawled back into bed about four thirty a.m., wondering if I had just wasted some precious hours of sleep. The truth is, I didn’t have much contact with this young man the rest of my college career, and it was years later when our lives happened to intersect, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I am a physician now with a thriving practice, and everything I have accomplished I trace back to that night when you took the time to encourage me.” I didn’t really know until that moment what impact my compassion had had on him. But I knew even as a college kid that words of encouragement could shine light upon a soul imprisoned in darkness.
All around us, my friends, are people whose lives are lost in darkness. All around us are lives in distress, weighed down by depression, weighted with despair and emptiness. Such lives cry out for someone to say, ‘You are not alone.’ Christ has given all of us the ministry of encouragement. Will we practice it? We have been given the power to speak light into someone’s darkness. Will we speak it?