One of my favorite scenes from the movie “Christmas Vacation” has Clark Griswold standing in his front yard with wife, children, parents and in-laws. They are shivering in the December cold, admiring the gaudy but brilliant Christmas lights that Clark has just strung all over the house.
But this light display has come at great cost. He has had many disappointments with dead bulbs and tangled wires. He has fallen off his ladder and worked late into the night while others were nestled in their beds. But finally, the lights are on! And yet, at this moment of pride and accomplishment, the only words which come from his father-in-law? “The little lights aren’t twinkling, Clark.”
Ugh! What a kick in the gut!
Perhaps you feel like Clark Griswold. You work hard on a project and all you get is criticism. You labor lovingly to prepare a meal and your thanks is: “The roast seems a little tough.” You preach or teach your heart out and the only feedback you receive is: “You don’t mention the Holy Spirit often enough.”
Have you noticed how criticism and a negative spirit can virtually suck the energy out of a meeting, a conversation or a relationship? Have you taken the time to tally social media to see whether there are more encouraging or discouraging posts? (Don’t do it; I don’t want you to be discouraged!)
For those who follow the Christian calendar, June 11 is St. Barnabas’ Day. Acts 4:36 introduces us to this man, whose given name is Joseph. But the early church gave him the name Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” This begs the question: If I allowed my church to bestow a descriptive moniker on me, what would it be? Mr. Grouchy? Rev. Always Right? Dr. Sad Sack? Mr. Negative?
Barnabas lived up to his name. In Acts 9, when Saul of Tarsus, a new convert to the Jesus Way, was having difficulty getting anyone to believe him or give him the time of day, it was Barnabas who intervened and used his considerable influence to welcome Saul. Barnabas saw the Saul-Paul glass as half-full, not half-empty and said to the church leaders, “Let’s take a chance on this guy. Something tells me he has potential.” How different would Christian history have been if Mr. Encourager had not stepped up.
Here’s the simple truth: It is impossible to measure the positive impact we can have when we develop the habit of encouragement. Many years ago, I attended a pastors’ conference and had braced myself for the usual fare — lots of bragging sermons about how the speakers were doing it right and I was doing it wrong (whatever “it” was). I was prepared to feel both guilty and inadequate.
Instead, a very successful pastor preached a sermon of encouragement. The message was in the indicative, not the imperative (I was loved and valued vs. I ought to be doing this or that). I went away lifted and refreshed, framing my many weaknesses in the larger truths of God’s provision and power. That sermon was delivered 25 years ago, and it is still nourishing my spirit.
If we’re all so starved for encouragement, why is it in such short supply? Where’s Barnabas when we need him? Sad to say, the secular world sometimes has a better grip on encouragement than the church does. In business and industry, a relatively new model for strategy planning has emerged called Appreciative Inquiry. AI begins with what is right in the organization, using strengths to leverage problem areas, thus keeping the visioning process from veering off into quick fixes or discouraging self-deprecation.
In yet another area, the mental health field offers “positive psychology” as an approach, not as a replacement for other emphases, but to augment them. Researchers have discovered that human beings are more drawn to the future than driven by the past. We more naturally grow by building on our virtues, positive experiences and pleasant memories.
May I offer a modest proposal? Let’s begin to cultivate a reputation for encouraging others. Wouldn’t it be great if someone would give me the nickname Encourager? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful word on my gravestone someday? Perhaps we could all begin June 11, on St. Barnabas’ Day. I challenge you to spend that entire day encouraging others — in person, by way of handwritten notes, over the phone or through social media. Don’t let a discouraging word come from your lips all day long!
Here’s hoping Barnabas shows up at your place — and mine — on June 11. And here’s hoping he stays awhile.
Doyle Sager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.