Monday, January 30, 2012

Genuine and Well-Timed Encouragement

At a recent ABC staff Christmas party, an envelope with my name on it was placed in front of me. I knew what it was—it was the outcome of a project that most of our staff had participated in. Weeks before, we were e-mailed a document with all the staff names on it. We were asked to write a word of encouragement or gratitude next to people’s names. One of our admin staff sorted through all these remarks and made each person a compiled list of comments unique to that person. It had been a joy to write notes for others, but now in front of me was an envelope that contained others’ thoughts about me.

In a private moment, I nervously opened the envelope. It’s amazing the anxiety that goes into reading things written about you. Illogical fears teased my mind. What if the comments are superficial and written out of obligation? What if I see backhanded compliments like: “You’re not as a big jerk as you used to be”? Even worse, what if the page is empty? What if these “encouragement sheets” leave me more discouraged about myself? Illogical, I know.

As I slowly read each comment (on multiple pages), I savored every word like they were bites of a steak dinner chewed by a homeless man. Tears ran down my eyes as I read kind notes that affirmed my work, my character, and my friendships. Some comments were short but very sweet from anonymous sources while others were short paragraphs from people who left their names. At the end of the reading, I felt affirmed, appreciated, encouraged, and loved. It struck me again at that moment, how powerful genuine, well-timed encouragement is in our lives. You see, in the weeks prior, I had come to realize that I had grown disillusioned and discouraged in my work. Instead of feeling affirmed, I experienced doubts. Instead of working from a heart of joy, I had grown cynical. Instead of feeling appreciated, I felt pushed aside. Genuine, well-timed encouragement was a powerful medicine for the sickness of discouragement I had allowed into my soul.

So what’s the mystery behind genuine, well-timed encouragement? Why is it so critical and impactful in our lives? First, it’s rare in our world today. I don’t know that I have ever met anyone who said, “I’m feeling over-encouraged.” We hunger for value and words of encouragement to fill our hearts with worth and purpose. Secondly, we’re overwhelmed with negative expressions of words. Our music can be angry. The news is often bad. Our conversations can be filled with complaint, sarcasm, and criticism. That’s why this proverb is so true:

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
Proverbs 16:24 NIV

There’s not a person on this planet who hasn’t experienced the personal damage of misused words. We all bear the wounds of others’ words. And, we also know the damage we have caused others with our poorly expressed words. We are people who have the power to create, but to also destroy, with our words. James writes about the conundrum of the mouth:

People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!
James 3.7-10 NLT

We use 10,000 to 20,000 words per day. Every word you use has an audience. What does that audience need to hear from you today? Remember, they have probably received enough correction, criticism, and banter for the day. How can you build up, create new, encourage, affirm, and value that person? Let your words be a sweet treat and an agent of healing today.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Family Garden

Growing up, my family always had a huge garden, and every August there was a flurry of excitement and activity in our household. Bushels of produce— tomatoes, beans, sweet corn, potatoes, and even rhubarb—was gathered as it completed its ripening. The canning jars arrived on the counter as the pressure cooker heated up. Soon the cupboards and freezer were full of veggies that would feed us throughout the next year. There was always a sense of fulfillment and gratification as you got to see, feel, and finally eat the product of our garden. Picking the garden was actually fun, as so much work had gone into that garden during the months prior. To be honest, during those growing months, I wasn’t very fond of that garden. Tilling, planting, weeding, and watering were all part on my summer chores. It was tedious, painful, tiring, and boring work. But in a weird way, I think that played a huge part in experiencing the joy of the harvest.

As an adult, I don’t have a garden. The produce we consume comes from the grocery store. It’s always there, whenever we want it. It’s convenient and easy and I like that. I don’t till, weed, or water in order to eat a carrot. Somebody’s done that for me. In a sense, it’s a nice relief… but it’s also too bad. The joy of the harvest has eluded my life a bit. We live in a culture of convenience and ease. I carry a phone with a data plan that gives me access to anything and anyone anytime. But, I still want it to be faster. We have microwave ovens and fast food restaurants that make our meals quick and easy. Yet, I find myself impatiently tapping my foot as I wait for the timer on the microwave to tick down. If the line is too long or the service is slow at the local burger joint, I can become enormously tense and disgusted that my time has been wasted. Ironically, in a culture of convenience and speed, we are growing more and more impatient. We want fast data plans, better fast food service and microwaves that can cook a turkey dinner in two minutes. Perhaps we need a backyard garden as a reminder of the beauty that can result from toil.

Paul understood the image of harvesting crops to illustrate our personal growth and journey with others.

…You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. Galatians 6.7-10 NLT

I wonder sometimes if we project our impatience into our spiritual journey. What if God looks at us as a garden to be planted, watered, weeded, and harvested… over a long period of time? We want instant maturity in our lives and in the lives of people we are relationally investing in. But often our investment is the tedious stage of tilling, planting, and weeding with hope the harvest will come later.

Recently, a friend shared with me two passages of Scripture. The first was Jesus’ first words to his disciples. He said, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” In a sense, Jesus was planting seed. The second passage was Jesus’ final words to his disciples. He said, “Go make disciples…” He was sending them because they were mature and ready. But, between those two statements, Jesus spent three years side by side with the Twelve. At times their growth in these three years was tedious, painful, and tiring. But in the end, it produced a great crop of disciple makers who would change the world.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Order to Disorder

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to help an old friend move. His house had been foreclosed on and he was moving into a rental. As we moved his boxes and pieces of furniture, my mind kept drifting to the day we moved his family into this house. The house was brand new and they were on top of the world to be moving into a home they had designed and planned. Now there were holes in the wall, stains in the carpet, and the musty smell from a water leak somewhere. The house was in remarkable disrepair. It made me sad that day because I knew the design and plan for the house was not to become dilapidated. But, I knew why this had happened. A once successful business was now bankrupt and a once beautiful marriage was now over. A once newly built dream home was a repairman’s nightmare.

My days of studying physics has longed past, but I believe there’s a universal law of science that states that without energy, any system will move from a state of order to increasing disorder. That’s why metal things rust and wooden things rot when they’re not cared for. But, this principle seems to apply to things less physical in nature. It also applies to finances, marriages, friendships, families, businesses, spirituality and other important things. If I fail to apply positive energy to my relationship with my wife, I should expect drift or conflict. If I don’t invest into my relationship with my kids when they 5 and 15, I may not have a relationship with them when they are 25 or 35.

Well before the laws the thermodynamics were penned, the author of Proverbs wrote this,

I went past the field of a sluggard, past the vineyard of someone who has no sense; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man. Proverbs 24:30-34

In contrast, something very simple reminded me recently of the importance of attending to things in our life. During the holidays, my sister invited us for Christmas dinner. On the table that afternoon were several dishes that had belonged to my mother who had passed away almost five years ago. One in particular was a glass water pitcher. That water pitcher is older than me and there’s a good chance that it’s over 60 years old. I won’t be surprised if this was the first and only glass water pitcher my mom ever owned. Now, I doubt it has any value outside our family. I’m sure American Pickers and the Antique Road Show would let it pass. But to me, it’s a symbol of the values of simplicity and care that my parents forged in their lives. Mom and dad had very little. But what they had, they took very good care of. That’s why a simple glass water pitcher is still pouring water for our family. That’s why my parents passed away having been faithful to each other for almost 60 years. That’s why my dad, on a rural pastor’s income, saved enough money to care for himself in his elderly days and still left some for his kids and grand kids. They attended to their field diligently… for a long time.

Without energy, attention, and commitment virtually everything in life will erode or decay. In this sermon series, we’ll look at a short list of commitments that really matter to our lives. The bad news is that if we neglect these commitments, we risk having to deal with fields filled with worthless weeds. But the good news is, if we apply ourselves to these commitments, God may bring a wonderful crop of goodness.

Friday, January 6, 2012

We Lost the Messiah!

Losing track of your kids can be a horrifying experience for a parent. My wife experienced that when our oldest daughter was 8 or 9 years old. Janice needed to make a quick stop at a grocery store near our home and Kari, disgruntled with this added stop on the way home, didn’t want to go in the store. So, she convinced her mom to let her stay in the car. Mom agreed, telling her to keep the doors locked and reminding her that she’d only be a minute or two. However, when Janice returned to the car, Kari was gone. Panic immediately set in. Janice began to work through the logical answers. Perhaps Kari had gotten bored and wandered in the store to find her. So, she ran back in, grabbed a store clerk and they began to search the store. They searched every aisle—no Kari. Then, on a whim, Janice decided to go home, which was only a couple blocks away. Janice entered the house and went immediately to Kari’s room. There she was, sitting peacefully watching videos. When asked why she decided to wander home on her own, she simply said something to the affect of, “I have things to do.” When Janice told me the story that night, I was horrified… but for only a minute. I remembered a time when I decided to wander off from my parents because I had better things to do.

As a kid, I hated shopping. Probably because the stores my parents and sisters dragged me were far from my interests in life. Clothes, fabric, groceries, home appliances—I had no interest in them. So, when my family made plans to hit some sidewalk sales, I needed to find a better plan for me. Our family was up in Sault Ste. Marie near where my oldest sister lives. She was newly married and I was just an 11 or 12 year old kid. As my mom and sisters began to pick through clothes racks, I asked if I could go check out a “fudgy” shop across the street— you know, one of those tourist fudge shops with all the cool overpriced souvenirs. I think because they were so tired of my whining, they relented and off I went. As it turned out, Sault Ste. Marie has a bunch of these little shops and I proceeded to work my way through most of them. I loved the freedom from the clothes racks and stacks of women’s shoes. I wasn’t going back anytime soon. Then I realized that the Soo was the home of the Soo Locks where the boats and barges pass from St. Mary’s River to Lake Michigan. Before the boats can pass, they have sit in the locks where the water rises or lowers to the level of the body of water they are going to. I needed to find the Soo Locks. So off I wandered, losing track of time.
I’m not sure how long I was gone but when I finally wandered back to the stores, I was greeted with fury. “Where have you been? We’ve been looking all over for you! You’ve been gone for hours and we were worried!” Frankly, I was a bit surprised as I had a wonderful afternoon of exploring. They got to shop and I got to explore, what’s the problem? I was oblivious to the worry and inconvenience I had caused.
I think there’s a quest in every child to explore their own independence.

Unfortunately, kids typically do this before they fully understand the dangers and difficulties that surround them as they wander away. But it does my heart good to know that Kari and I were not the first kids to wander from their parents. Jesus, the 12-year-old incarnate Son of God and Messiah, wandered from Mary and Joseph and clan. It’s kind of refreshing to know that, isn’t it? For three days, Mary and Joseph journeyed to find their “special” son who got separated from the family. Can you imagine their conversations? “I thought he was with you. When did you see him last? Where did he say he was going? I can’t believe we lost the Messiah!” As a parent, I can relate to their horror.

But there’s something I really love about this story from Jesus’ perspective. Remember, this is the Son of God, the second member of the Trinity in 12-year-old human skin. As God, he’s given up his divine attributes of knowing everything and being all powerful. He’s vulnerable and needs to grow in knowledge and understanding. But as human, he has a childlike innocence that allows him to wander and explore. He pursues independence and discovery as he grows to understand who he really is and what his mission and purpose are all about. I love the fact that God chose to reveal himself, and rescue us from our sin, by becoming human. It tells me that he relates to the human stuff that happens to me.

Read Luke 2.41-52 today and see the common humanity in this family story. But, look deeper for signs of Jesus’ deity. He’s beginning to grow into his mission.