Daughters and Sons of Consolation (Third in Sermon Series, “Fresh Air for Fall”)

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I.

Some say that it is in the most challenging of times that we see humanity and its best. I hope it isn’t true that we sit back and wait for the crisis before we do the best we can for people who are struggling on a day-to-day basis. Yet, if not for the good Samaritans after a crisis of some sort has threatened groups of people we wonder how many would get through after all.

Various news sources including the Huffington Post have been noticing several of these random acts of kindness from people trying to be supportive to those who lost the most in the damaging winds and rains of hurricane Sandy.

One New York physician, Dr. Dave Ores, posted a humble cardboard sign out in front of his office located at 189th Street at East Second; it read something to the effect that he was open that day, Wednesday when the staggering assessments of damage in New York City began to be confronted, and was offering, as his sign said, free medical care to anyone who needed it.  Wow.

Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, had an interesting approach to helping people in his area who were slammed by hurricane Sandy. When people began to get in touch with him saying that they didn’t have power or a place to stay, whatever their problem was, he invited people to come to his house:  “Come and charge your electronic device.  Come and find clean drinking water. Come and rest; we have some space.”  Amazing, Mayor Booker!

If I have a challenge in my life and someone takes the time to check in with me to see how I’m doing, this contact—as simple as a text message or a quick phone call for those who still believe in using their voices–is a great encouragement to me.  It brightens my day to know that there are other people out there who In the midst of all the busy-ness and demands that life throws their way still find time to make contact with me.   My former student from the Louisville seminary, the Rev. Charles Peter Gibson, texted to see if his dear old professor was making it through the storm.  I was so touched when I saw his text.

Don and Cathe Nixon who live in Georgia, called the other evening to say, “We guessed you were OK by staying up with the weather reports, but we wanted to call, hear your voice, and be sure that you actually were.”  Our friendship goes all the way back to our college days, and we are not out of touch though not in touch as frequently as all of us would wish.  These dear friends took the time to call me and ask the simple question, “Are you OK?”  And that lifted my spirits considerably.  As a matter of fact, I was OK.  No real storm damage.  Life generally goes well. Yeah, I was OK, but I was surely “more OK” after the call.

Anderson Cooper and his news staff drove their all equipped van, its own power source that could legally be out on the roads since it is a news vehicle, over into Hoboken, New Jersey, where they parked in a central location and allowed people who needed to recharge their cellular telephones to come to the van and do that. Mr. Cooper and his staff also made the van’s built in computers available to residents without power to get into the sizable vehicle and check and send email messages.  Email was the only means some of the storm victims had to get word to their families that they were safe.

Banfield Pet Hospitals, the largest veterinary practice in the world I learned, has offered free physical examinations to pets in any of the hard hit states to make sure that a pet battered about by the high winds and rains as well as those prevented from taking their medicines, blown or washed away by the storm’s forces, are in good shape.

A Long Island resident who managed to be spared from the worst of the effects of hurricane Sandy immediately when danger had passed brewed up a huge urn of coffee and put it out in front of her home with plenty of sugar and cream and painted on a big piece of plywood, “Have Some Coffee.”  As you well know, for many people there is no finer tonic for dealing with a crisis or just getting through a regular day than good ole coffee.

The morning after Sandy had passed through the New York area there was a kid, maybe 10 years old, and I loved seeing the pictures of him that we’re being passed around on news sources.  He was a budding magician, and he stood on a sidewalk with his magic wand in hand; he had written on a sign propped up on the table beside him, “Come and watch a magic trick. Then leave donations for survivors of Hurricane Sandy.”

Speaking of the world of entertainment, Mary J. Blige, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting, Steven Tyler, and Christina Aguilera, among other musical performers, offered a televised concert, a benefit, to raise funds to assist victims of Superstorm Sandy with the process of trying to rebuild their lives.  Joining the musicians were newsmen, Matt Laur and Brian Williams, along with typically funny folk with no jokes about the cause for the benefit: Danny DeVito, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jon Stewart.  Ms. Aguilera was the first to speak:

We’ve come together tonight to tell every single person who’s suffering that we are here for you. We will do whatever we can to help. We will not leave anyone behind because every single one of you matters.

II.

Barnabas was one of the earliest participants in the Jesus Movement in the Jerusalem area.  He and the Apostle Paul took missionary journeys together, and except for his connection to Paul we might know nothing about Barnabus.

His birth name was Joseph, but when he sold all his material possessions and gave the money to the apostles in Jerusalem, signaling that he was completely sold out to the Jesus Movement, they told him, which was not unusual, that he needed a new name to reflect his new life.  The leaders of the movement thought about behaviors that most characterized him as the basis for coming up with a suggestion.  Joseph was consistently encouraging those who had given up on themselves so the recommended new name was Barnabas, which meant “son of consolation” or “son of encouragement.”  What a beautiful way to be thought of.

I don’t know of a single era in the history of the Christian church during which there was an abundance of encouragers. There were always plenty of neutral people who neither caused trouble nor eased tensions. And there were certainly those champions of rabble rousing who wished to dominate not only the thought processes of those in the Christian movement of their time, but also the behaviors for which it would be known . But too many encouragers? Never, and yet the person on whose teachings and exemplary actions the Christian church was founded and built was living, breathing encouragement.  Jesus encouraged everyone with whom he came into contact except the self-possessed and the self-impressed.

One of the most stirring stories about Jesus told by those who set out to share his life story from their particular theological bent is the story the woman caught in the act of adultery. Though some scholars question the reliability of the story as an actual part of Jesus’ experience, at the very least it reflects how Jesus acted in comparable kinds of situations.

If you think just a little bit about it, the title that has been attached to the story, “The Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery,” sounds incomplete. It is the rare biblical interpreter who misses out on the fact that the woman was caught in the act of adultery by nosy pharisaical neighbors of hers, but the man who was with her–making adultery happen–isn’t mentioned at all. Now, if the woman were in fact caught in the middle of being adulterous, there had to have been someone else with her. How interesting, though, that since all of her accusers were men, the male adulterer escapes into anonymity with the blessings of his friends and fellow citizens. So, there’s only a woman caught in the act of adultery as her accusers would try to frame the situation for Jesus to respond to, this whole event being nothing more that a setup to trip him up as an interpreter of ancient Hebrew law.  Some of the woman’s accusers must’ve thought that they had found the perfect way to catch Jesus in a situation out of which he could not verbally extract himself.

So they bring the woman, dragging her from her bed, and they throw her down at the feet of Jesus. They tell part of the story, but as we’ve mentioned, they intentionally leave out a significant part of it. Their spokesman said to Jesus, “We caught this woman in the act of adultery; the law of Moses says that we must stone her to death, but your bleeding heart interpretations of the ancient law seem to find ways to get guilty people off the hook. There’s no way to get her off the hook. There were multiple witnesses. She was clearly in the wrong. She was clearly in violation of basic decency along with the law of Moses. Now what do you have to say to keep us from proceeding to fulfill the law of Moses by stoning her right now?”

Jesus responded by saying, “Oh no. Of course not. I would never encourage anybody to ignore or violate the law of Moses. I do have a couple questions before we begin. The first one is, where is her accomplice?  The law says, doesn’t it, that a couple caught in the act of adultery should be stoned to death? A man and woman, at least one of whom is married to another person, are engaged in illicit hard-core sexual activity. So in order to fulfill the law of Moses we need the other part of the equation. One plus  zero does not equal two.”

Then Jesus continued, “I have this other question for you. I just want to know who among you upstanding moral citizens with whom we could not get along has never sinned? I’m sure there’s at least one of you, probably several, but at least one who has never sinned.  I think it’s only fitting that he or they come to the front line and have the joy of casting the first stone or stones.”  Of course no one came forward because everybody knew everybody, the curse of small town living. And no one could make that claim if the woman perchance were a prostitute.  Chances are, some of those in the crowd of accusers had been on her client list.  Just saying.

So Jesus had no takers, and one by one with their heads hanging low they left. The crowd dispersed. The woman looked up at Jesus not knowing what to say.  He had saved her life, literally. Not waiting for her to speak or expecting her to speak, Jesus spoke, and he asked this question, “Where are your accusers?” The woman cautiously looked around to be sure, “They have all gone, sir.”

Jesus responded by saying, “Yes they have, and just so you know for sure neither do I condemn you.  God is love, and that love embraces you too.  Get out of this dust, and go back and start loving yourself.”  Living breathing encouragement.

III.

Consider this description of encouragement:

Encouragement is positive feedback that focuses primarily on effort or improvement rather than outcomes. Encouragement is recognizing, accepting, and conveying faith in [someone] for the mere fact that he or she exists. The [person] does not have to be “the best” to be a full-fledged human being. With encouragement, [an individual] feels worthwhile and appreciated regardless of the results he or she achieves. Encouragement separates the deeds from the doer…. (from “cyc-online”).

Evans and Dreikurs give examples in their study, “The Language of Encouragement,” of encouraging words contrasted with words that are probably intended to be encouraging, but aren’t.  So, here are six encouraging statements, and the researchers had in mind a teacher-student or a parent-child relationship.  We should be able to translate these into words for grown-up, peer relationships.

“I think you can do it.”

“You have what it takes.”

“You’re a hard worker.”

“What do you think?”

“I could use your help.”

“It looks like a problem occurred.  What can we do to solve the problem?”

OK.  Now, comments that cannot encourage:

“Here, let me do that for you.”

“Be careful; it’s dangerous.”

“Don’t forget your assignment.”

“Let me give you some advice.”

“When you’re older, you can help.”

“I told you to be careful.”

I want to tell you a little tale about encouragement.  I have borrowed the story, but its author is unknown:

Three young frogs—new friends, who were still unwise about the ways of the world, were out one day, exploring their environment. They came to a dairy, and bold as could be they entered to investigate. The first thing they came upon was a bucket, and eager to know more about it, two of them jumped right in. The third frog, slightly more timid than his two pals, only jumped onto the rim of the bucket and looked down at his buddies struggling to get out of that white water. 

After several failed attempts, he shouted down to them, “You’ll never make it. Face facts and prepare to die!” But since self-preservation is the first rule of life for humans and animals alike, they continued to struggle for as long as possible. The frog on top kept spewing forth his pessimism, “You’ll never make it. Give up and die peacefully.” Unfortunately one of the two struggling frogs could not continue and disappeared below the surface never to be seen again.

The one remaining in the bucket continued despite the discouragement of his new would be friend on top of the bucket. After a short while his feet had a somewhat solid yellow substance to stand on. He had unwittingly made butter out of the cream on top of the milk. No sooner had he enough for a foothold than he positioned himself and jumped out of the bucket!  When rejoined by his comrade he thanked him profusely for all the encouragement he had shouted down to him. He would never have made it without his help, he insisted. The smug, negative frog looked at the survivor in complete confusion.  By the way, the frog who survived was deaf!

Psychiatrist Alfred Adler did not believe people with psychological disturbances were ill; instead, he thought they were discouraged.  The goal of Adlerian therapy is to help clients embrace and live with the power of encouragement.  An Adlerian therapist does this by helping clients affirm four realities.  If we dare to be encouragers rather than those who tear others down, we can learn from these four realities of encouragement; some of Adler’s devotees have helped us remember these through the use of alliteration:  connection, capability, counting, and courage.

Connection.  I have a place in this world, and I belong.

Capability.  I can do what I need to do.

Counting.  I am capable of making a difference.

Courage. I can cope with what comes my way.

A word from Johann von Goethe:  “Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.”

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