Colossians 3:12-17; John 15:9-17
The story is told of a weary man, aged beyond his years, who walked slowly into the office of a country doctor. The man appeared spent, even by the brief walk back to the doctor’s examination room, and he sat down heavily onto the examination table.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked the doctor.
The man answered, “Doctor, life is very short and very hard, and I find no joy.”
The doctor listened to the man describe his symptoms, then examined him. On finding no physical abnormalities, the doctor wondered how he could possibly be of help? Finally, the doctor’s face lit up when he thought he might have a remedy. The doctor said, “There’s an amazing clown appearing in our local theater. Prokevia is his name. He’s absolutely marvelous! Go and see him, and perhaps he will remind you of the joy that lies hidden in your life.”
The man looked up at the satisfied doctor, breathed a sigh and said, “My dear doctor… I am Prokevia.”
You may understand Prokevia’s suffering if you are a wonderful person. If you do some things well, bring sustenance and delight to other people’s lives, and if you are dependable, you will likely be taken for granted and for gratis, but you will not be taken with gratitude. At least gratitude will probably not be expressed to you. Not often. It’s not because the people whose lives you touch aren’t dependent on you; nor that they are without gratitude for who you are and what you do. But in a kind of paradoxical way, the better you perform, and the more dependable you are, the less likely you will hear praise and gratitude… which would be so encouraging to you. The children or adults who look to you and depend upon you undoubtedly have some unconscious sense that who you are and what you do simply emanates from you; it all happens from within you – you being like a nuclear power plant that doesn’t need any infusion of energy from outside – and so you are left alone to do what you do so amazingly and predictably well. Surely you know you are wonderful? Surely you know how much you matter? Surely you know how grateful we are for you? Surely? But you actually don’t know this. You might have known this once, maybe even yesterday, but you’ve long since forgotten it.
If people depend on you for something, you are not “down and out,” but rather “up and out,” and you can easily feel estranged all the same. Your need to be remembered, thanked, and encouraged is great. And you’re not going to admit this. Unless you blow up and lose veneer, you’re not going to admit you need to be remembered, thanked, supported, and encouraged.
Do you remember that scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye asks his wife of 25 years, Golde, “Do you love me?” He implores her again and again, “Do you love me?” There’s every reason he should know he is loved, Golde reminds him, but Tevye rather desperately needs to be reminded, or he needs to be told explicitly. And so for us. In our Rule of Life, we talk about our needing support and encouragement as our “daily bread.” Most of us have short-term memory loss whether we matter and are appreciated, especially in what we do well. I’m probably speaking about you.
We also need support and encouragement as daily bread because of the very personal ways in which we otherwise suffer alone, as we say in our Rule, especially at times of stress, disappointment, and weakness. When we fail, or when we feel ourselves a failure, we suffer three losses: estrangement from God, from other people, and from ourselves. It’s the latter – our relationship with our own self – that is the lynch pin in all our other relationships.
No matter how much we may belong to other people – in a marriage or partnership, in a monastic community, to professional colleagues or fellow volunteers, or to precious family members and friends – no matter our bonds to other people, the most important relationship we wake up to every morning is our relationship to our own self: whether we are on good speaking terms with our own self; whether we can love, honor, forgive, and enjoy our own selves. The degree to which we can love ourselves will set the bar for how we will relate to others and to God. We will love others the way we love ourselves, just as Jesus said.1 This is our essential need for converting our existential condemnation and loneliness into the most splendid solitude. There’s a reason why we cannot do this alone.
All of us make mistakes, suffer failures, miss the mark, experience ourselves disappointing. This begins in our early childhood. We learn about our failures and inadequacies from others and, whether or not others’ judgment of us is accurate or helpful, we will probably believe it and even collude with it as we grow older. We are graded in life, first by others, then by ourselves. And no matter how good we are, we always could have been better. If left to our own devices, our own mean judgments, we will almost inevitably score poorly. We could have been, should have been better, don’t we know. There’s no way out of this downward, internal spiral, which can become viral, unless we are rescued by love. It’s otherwise hell, all the way to hell. We are secretly condemned and sentenced to a lifetime, an eternity of inadequacy, failure, and estrangement unless we are rescued by love: someone who will bequeath dignity, worth, recognition, and gratitude upon us because of who were are and what we do. We simply cannot grasp this alone: that we are precious, and amazing, and of inestimable value unless this truth is mirrored into our being by another person.2 We need others’ help to know we are forgivable and forgiven. We cannot save ourselves. We need to be saved from hell every day. We need to give and receive support and encouragement for one another as “daily bread.” This is not a one-time need, but rather our ongoing need for the intervention of love for ourselves, mediated through other people.
Jesus said he has come “to bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”3 He’s talking about us. The only way we can grasp Jesus’ judgment of love is through the hands, and hearts, and words of other people who are the channels of Jesus’ intervening, liberating truth. Jesus will reach us through other people. That’s the only way. We need daily support and encouragement from others or we are left to ourselves where we become, simultaneously, the judge, the jailer, and the prisoner in solitary confinement. We need one another to meditate Jesus’ light and life and love for us.4
Encouragement is an amazing thing. The English word “encouragement” comes from the Old French, “corage,” which is the word for heart. Encouragement is a balm to the heart. Encouragement will bind up the broken hearted, just as Jesus promises us. Encouragement is a need we all have; encouragement is a power we all have. Unleash that power. When Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” you do not necessarily have to share blood, sweat, and tears for others, at least not every day. But every day you can lay down your life for others by bowing before them. Acknowledge their dignity, their amazing worth, their wonderful work, the reality of their forgivenness, the essence of their loveliness. This will change their day, and change their lives, and make an eternity of difference. Encouragement will convert someone’s fearful heart, or lonely heart, or a heart of stone into the new heart that God promises.5 Encouragement is how courage gets into our hearts. Encouragement produces courage; encouragement makes us strong, very strong. It is as simple and profound as that. Encouragement: you have the need; you have the power.
This Lent, perhaps you’ve given up something to help prepare for the joy of Eastertide. Here’s a lenten practice to take on: encouragement. Be encouraging to at least one person every day. You could even be encouraging to two people. Maybe more. You have within your heart almost an endless supply of encouragement for other people. Practice it! And that encouragement will return to you, even a hundredfold.6
3 Jesus begins his public ministry in Luke 4:14-21 by reading aloud from the prophecy of Isaiah (61): “The spirit of the LordGod is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit….” Jesus concludes the reading, announcing that he, “today,” is fulfilling this scripture.
4 “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.” Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic.