The Power of Encouragement

Cool winds blow as the sun goes down on yet another work week. I grab my laptop computer from the back seat of the van- a bag full of papers, my purse and jacket, then head for the house. Stone walkway under my feet showing signs of wear. Four cats waiting on the steps.
And I sigh. I have really been discouraged lately. So many things coming at me from all directions and they all seem to culminate during the month of November. Parent-teacher interviews, report cards, committee meetings, community and church commitments, university papers due, sickness in the family. And then there’s just the regular,old day-to-day grind- running thither and yon with kids in tow while I drag bag upon bag of STUFF everywhere I go. Grocery bags, back-packs, Zuca figure skating bags. My big, black purse. It feels sometimes like I’m living out of these bags. Add to all the above- the weather is changing and I think I just might have a touch of seasonal affective disorder.

And I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on Christmas being right around the corner.

Yesterday, I spent the better half of the morning at the dentist fixing yet another broken, worn-out tooth. Gotta love root canals. And this morning, Husband woke up with what he perceived as being a piece of gravel in his eye which turned out to actually be a wood chip. He spent the morning at the hospital and now is sporting an eye patch which gives him a slight edge over Jonny Depp as my most favorite-est pirate ever.
I arrive home to find him on the couch with Youngest sprawled over the top of him like an afghan. “I’m hunnnnngry,” she whines. And so it begins. Welcome to my Friday.

I sit down at the computer to take a peek at messages and e-mails when I find it. A letter from a woman I know vaguely. Opening the letter, I am completely taken back by the words I read. And what I read was this: the most beautiful, sweetest note I have ever received about one of my children from outside the family.

The tears started to fall as soon as I realized what the letter was about. It was a note of encouragement- completely unexpected. Apparently, I have a child who has befriended a child in class who is experiencing some difficulties; and this child of mine has used every opportunity to make a special connection with this other child- so much so, that my child’s name has been coming up at home as someone very special to this other child. Particularly in light of some of the extenuating circumstances going on with the child in mention. The letter was detailed and the closing line said this:
“I just wanted you to know that you have an amazing {child’s gender} and ask if you could please thank {your child} for me. I’m sure you’re very proud of {them}.”

I couldn’t hold back the tears. Honestly. It just blew me right out of the water.

And it reminded me yet again of the strength one can find in encouragement. Encouragement: it’s such a simple concept yet so profound. We can make the choice to say words that tear down or say words that build up. And even more significant- when we think a good thought about someone, we can choose to keep that good thought to ourselves or we can choose to share it.

How many times have I thought something about someone that made that person stand out as special and unique in my mind, but then got distracted and forgot to tell them what I was thinking? Too many times to count. And I miss out on sharing how that person has touched my life- and they miss out on feeling encouraged.

After I received that note today, I got to thinking: it wouldn’t take much to write a quick note to ten different people about either something they’ve done that I noticed as unique and important- or something someone connected to them has done that just made my day better in one way or the other. It wouldn’t take much effort. But in so doing, ten people would potentially have that same overwhelming feeling of encouragement that I had when I arrived home today. Which would be so worth it. Such a little thing to do- write a note of encouragement- but so very, very profound.

So. I want to challenge the people that read this tonight: think of ten people who have touched your life in a special way. Or not. Think of ten people that you know might just need the encouragement. Maybe they are not the kinds of people that hear nice things said about them very often: those people need encouragement the most. Or think of ten children of ten friends of your’s that you know you could say something nice about. Ten co-workers. Ten neighbors. Ten random people that you vaguely know but whom you know enough about to encourage. And just do it. Encourage them. Write something really special and see what it does for both you and them.

I’ve been discouraged lately. Maybe a lot of us have been. Anybody there? Anybody with me on this one?

Here’s what I know for sure about discouragement: it flips itself on its back when faced with an encouraging word. Discouragement doesn’t stand as much of a chance when over shadowed by encouragement. That little note tonight did more to lifts my spirits than that woman could ever imagine.

What little note could you write tonight that might make all the difference?

This Christmas: It’s About Receiving

Black, velvet sky melts into night-time darkness. It’s something below freezing. And I think to myself, ‘here we go again’. It’s another ‘up-too-late’ week-night, and I find myself driving snow-dusted roads riddled with pot-holes. This is becoming a habit I wish I could break; that is, the custom of making lesson plans in a creepy building where toilets flush spontaneously and every creak and whistle is felt like a chill. I glance at our passenger side floor mats that are gently speckled with frost. Makes me shiver. I’m glad for the double insulation tonight in the form of two pairs of pants, a warm coat, gloves and a hat.

All the houses I pass look warm and inviting. That’s where I should be right now- at home, cuddled up with a good book and a cuppa something hot. I notice to my right a curtained bay window that partially hides a glimmering Christmas tree. Seriously, I mutter. Already? White lights sparkle as if to inspire. But rather than stir the heart strings, it stresses.me.out.

I am not ready for Christmas. And I admit it: I am not at all excited about the upcoming Christmas season which lies just around the corner.

When I conjure up images of the Season, thoughts always turn to giving. That notion of giving has been ingrained in me from a child, and truly giving is something I have come to believe in as worthwhile and necessary. Of course, I learned how from the very best. My parents- the epitome of sacrificial ‘life-givers,’ having devoted their every breath and good intention to the families and people they served in full-time pastoral ministry.

My mother with a permanent curvature in her spine from having spent more hours than a person could recount on the phone, counseling women- young and old alike- she has lost years of sleep praying over women. Lifting their names heavenward when she could have been deep in slumber. Her life has been a gift freely offered to those she has mentored, prayed with, loved and befriended. She has been and continues to be an inspiration.

My dad, just released yesterday from the hospital, has Parkinson’s. A trip years ago to the Lahey Clinic in Boston confirmed that indeed, Parkinson’s is related to full-time ministry work. Many of those patients studied came from a life of stressful, full-out, service to the people they assisted. That’s my Dad. He was a wonderful pastor. Throughout my growing up years, his minutes, hours, days and weeks were devoted to The Calling. But years take their toll. And then some. What my parents had, they gave. And they gave over pretty much everything.

And what of their offspring? Are we treading similar paths? Yesterday, I found myself on the way to school yet again with the gritty taste of a broken tooth in my mouth after having pulverized yet another molar into dust. The grinding a result of stress acted out in restless dreams. The daily circus- running here, there and everywhere- and for whom? For what? And why?

It’s all getting to me.

Yes. I have seen with my own two eyes what havoc self-less living can wreak on lives that place great emphasis on generous service, duty and responsibility more so than on intentional acceptance. Even if that giving was done with the right motives. There were years when we kids waited, as hours ticked by, for a Dad who willingly made hospital calls on Christmas morning- knowing that this Calling of his and my mom’s was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s just how it was. So when I think of Christmas, of Christmas trees- lights shimmering in the dark. Of presents underneath and happy, cheerful voices. I think of my parents. How they gave freely from the heart- year-round- and gave from what little monetary value they had. Their time, their resources, their lives. All characterized by self-less giving. And it has surely caused us as their children to be the better for it.

I am now an adult on that same side of the fence as my parents were once, and I am coming to realize indeed that giving is important. But that there are drawbacks when it comes to giving. Yes, there is amazing joy to be found in giving. And truly giving gets our eyes off ourselves and focused on others. And while I will always believe that giving is truly a worthwhile portion of the whole, I have come to believe that there’s more to the story than this. Because many of us, if we’re truthful, find this part somewhat easy. Giving- we know how to do that. It’s part of our culture. But when it comes to receiving back from others, well- that’s another story. It’s harder somehow. It’s hard to accept the gift with humility and gratitude. Shamelessly reveling in the pleasure of the offering. There is just something about a person who can with acceptance receive the gift with unabashed abandon. Just like a child seeing Christmas for the very first time.

It’s receiving that is hardest, in my books, folks. And this year, I’m just not ready yet to give more of me. Stripping my resources to the bones, wiping myself out so as to outdo what I might have done last year. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet for Christmas if what I have to look forward to is wearing myself thin, turning myself inside out, holding my emotions upside down all in the name of burning out for Christmas cheer.

If Christmas means giving more and more, then I’ll take a pass, thanks.

This year, I plan on receiving. I want Christmas to wash over me in all its glory. This year, I want to focus on receiving Christmas.

And I am coming to realize with the passing of years that there is a point of no return. A point when reached that one realizes they just can’t give anymore. Something else has got to give. But yet the paradox seems to be that while one is coming to the end of the proverbial rope with giving endlessly to seemingly worthwhile causes, that one can at the same time find it difficult to place themselves square on the receiving end of the gift.

To be sure- through the years, we’ve been inundated with the message that it’s better to give than receive. That God loves a cheerful giver. That it is in giving that we find true joy. That there is no better exercise than reaching down and lifting people up (John Holmes). That it is through giving we are blessed.

And most of us give- maybe not until it hurts, but we do know how to give. We give to charity, to community and church service. We tithe. We place ourselves on the altar of sacrifice for our children. But when it comes to receiving something back ourselves, don’t we have a hard time accepting that we’re really worthy of the gift? That we’re worth being sacrificed for, worth being the object of someone else’s blessing? It is humbling to be in the passive role, accepting that I am at times: needy, lacking and without. It is humbling to be the receiver when encountering one with something to offer me. Because I like to be in control. Being the receiver puts me at a distinct disadvantage.

Being on acceptance end of the gift-giving reminds me of my frailty. It reminds me that I don’t have everything- I’m sometimes at a disadvantage. It reminds me that in receiving, I have cause to be thankful. It reminds me that I am loved. It reminds me that I am the route to someone else’s blessing. I am the pathway to blessing for the one who gives to me.

And it is a humble reminder that I should never stand in the way of that. Of letting someone else feel the joy of giving.

It’s hard to receive. It’s hard to receive when we know the cost. When we know what it truly means. We hate to impose, to bother- to be that burden on another. For we know the price of time, of scarce resources, of money spent. We’ve been the giver so many times before. And don’t we sometimes just feel so unworthy? Not worth the offering. Such a nuisance.

As if the gift was never meant for us.

Almost 2000 years ago, God sent a gift. It was His absolute delight to do so- and what a gift that Baby was. That Child came to give so that we might receive. It was a gift, His birth. A gift to all those that witnessed the spectacle. A gift to Mary- and Joseph. A gift to the shepherds, the village people, the wise men. It was truly the Ultimate Gift- a gift that keeps on giving. Even today.

And I don’t know about you, but I am starting to feel ready to let that gift of peace and hope and love and Light and good will toward mankind wash over me this Christmas. I don’t need to give up, give out, give away or give over to receive this gift- I just need to accept it. I don’t need to burn myself out chasing after it- it already came. Hand-delivered. And the Gift is just waiting for me to unwrap it.

So I don’t want my focus to be giving this year. I don’t want to sell myself out, burn myself out, using up all my energy playing Christmas. I want to receive the gift. With absolute, awe-filled wonder.

I want to receive Christmas. As if it was my first Christmas ever.