Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Worship: A Wild Thing

. . . let us be thankful, and so worship God with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29 NIV).

About eleven years ago I made my first (and so far only) trip to Alaska. I spent two weeks there, feeling small in the vastness of the place, marveling at sights massive and expansive, enjoying daylight that lasted past midnight and never went away entirely. In the middle of that trip my hosts took me to the mountains. The journey required the services of a bush pilot. No roads could get to where we were going. He landed on a grass runway not far from some small hunting sheds (the word “cabin” suggests something more substantial than what was there). He helped us unload our gear and supplies and said, “I’ll be back for you Wednesday.”

There we were. No electricity. No plumbing. No radio, TV or DVD players. No stores to run to. Nothing but wild. Our two day stay in the mountains would involve walking from one cluster of hunting sheds to another cluster, and then hiking back again. At one point during this trek I heard a distant howling. “What’s that,” I asked. “Wolves” I was told matter of factly.

I remember that trip now, and what strikes me about it isn’t what I saw or did there. What I recall above all of that is simply this: Never once was I bored. I could use any number of words to try and capture what that experience was like. I was awed, thrilled, at times scared, grateful, occasionally hungry, tired – but never bored.

Why is it that the most common criticism of church is the word “boring.” There are other criticisms to be sure, some more pointed and scathing than the accusation of dullness, but “boredom” seems to head the list of negative impressions associated with church in general and worship in particular. Boring worship. How did we ever get there?

A couple of weeks ago the California Supreme Court handed down a decision about the liability of amusement parks relative to roller-coasters and other rides. The technical legal question had to do with whether such rides are public carriers, or something like that. I don’t know the details of what the court was trying to decide. However, what caught my attention was the commentary of a legal analyst on one of the cable news channels. He basically summarized the court’s opinion in simple terms. The minority of the court argued that when a person rides a roller-coaster they know there is an element of risk or danger involved and they willingly assume such risks by getting on the ride. In fact, the element of danger is part of the reason for getting on the ride to begin with.

But the majority disagreed. They said that amusement park patrons want the experience of danger the ride provides, but they want it with the assurance of safety.

I don’t know the legal implications of that opinion, but I think the majority was right. We want the exhilaration without the risk. We want an experience that won’t cost us too much. And what’s more, what the California Supreme court said about amusement park patrons might well be said about many who attend church worship services. There’s an appetite for spirituality that’s exhilarating or comforting, a Christianity that that buttresses our pursuit of the American dream and strengthens us as we accumulate comforts - and it does all of this without disturbing us.

But this is exactly what soon becomes boring. There’s nothing vast or expansive or the least bit threatening about this kind of spirituality. The reason I was never bored in the mountains of Alaska was because I knew that the place could kill me. Being in the middle of the Alaskan mountain range is very different from standing at a distance and taking pictures. Taking pictures of mountains is what tourists do. Hiking those mountains within earshot of wolves pushes one beyond mere observation. The sights are still beautiful, but something is at stake.

The Hebrew prophets couldn’t tolerate religious tourism, worship with the illusion of safety. To draw near to God was to be immersed in something entirely overwhelming, threatening, awesome. The prophet Malachi gave assurances that God would one day come to his temple, but he added a caution. “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:2). Jeremiah stood in the temple gates and confronted those who came with empty words, repeating over and over in some kind of mantra, “this is the temple of the Lord, this is the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4). They came with words, living any way they wanted, thinking that the mantra would make them safe. Isaiah’s temple vision showed him the truth about himself and left him fearing for his life (Isaiah 6:5).

There’s no way worship should ever be boring. And worship that tries to deliver a spiritual experience at little or no cost will inevitably become boring. To enter the sanctuary is to watch the pilot leave you in the wild. This memory of Alaska gives me a new way of looking at what it means to lead people in worship. It’s taking them to vast country of God and God’s ways, both merciful and terrible, and leaving them there to deal with what they find or what finds them. You can make it out alive, but not unchanged.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Beach, Billy Graham, and the Check-Out Line at Kroger

"You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake" (1 Thess. 1:5b).

For me, being at the beach is a balancing act - a negotiation between time spent with children in the ocean or the pool and time by the ocean or the pool reading. Actually, there isn’t much balancing to be done. I read until my kids plead with me to “get in.” I know that pretty soon we’ll go to the beach and they won’t want me anywhere around, so they never have to plead too long. Once I’m “in” I throw them around until they (and I) have had enough, then back to my chair and my book until the next invitation.

For the past five days we’ve been enjoying the Atlantic coast near Charleston, S.C., and when I’ve been able to sit in a chair on the beach or by the pool I’ve been making my way through Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What. So far Miller’s message boils down to this: Christianity is not a formula. You don’t become a Christian by following a formula, and you don’t live the Christian life by following a formula or doing certain Christian things. Miller says that we’ve tried to make Christianity formulaic and this presentation of the faith is simply no longer compelling. The formulas don’t make people want to become Christians. To say “believe these things in this order” and then instruct people to “behave this way and do these things” just doesn’t get it. Miller still has a firm grasp on the doctrines we believe and the kind of life we are called to live, but he insists on a relational context for all these things. The neglected relational dynamic of Christianity needs to be recovered. That’s what I understand this book to be about.

He’s not had to work too hard to convince me. As a seminary student I was required to take a course in personal evangelism. The course rightly required students to actually go out and share their faith with another person and then report on the encounter. The church I attended at the time had a Sunday afternoon evangelism ministry whereby people were trained to share the gospel and then sent out along Hemphill Ave. in Fort Worth to do just that. I signed up and for several weeks walked up and down Hemphill Ave. trying to initiate conversations that would eventually allow me to “witness.”

What I noticed on these Sunday afternoons was that directly across the street from the church was a park where large crowds of people – mostly Hispanic – gathered every week to play soccer. Oddly, none of us who had been trained to “witness” ever went over to the park to play soccer. Sure, there might have been a language barrier. But the larger barrier was a relational chasm. We shared the faith by laying out a formula, an explanation of ideas. We didn’t share the faith by playing soccer. Miller is trying to tell us to do less explaining and play more soccer.

With these ideas in my head we left Charleston yesterday and made the five hour drive home. On the way back my wife and I listened to a radio talk show from Flushing Meadows, New York - the site this weekend of what may well be Billy Graham’s last crusade here in the U.S. Billy Graham is 86 years old and still preaching. With the Milleresque take on the Christian faith fresh on my mind I listened to the talk show host interview Franklin Graham about his father’s ministry. It occurred to me that when Billy Graham preaches, the heart of his message seems to be what Miller calls a “formula.” He often describes life apart from Christ, then moves to what life can be like with Christ, then tells people how to move from one condition to the other, which is to say from “life without” to “life with.” Tens of millions of people have heard him preach and no doubt thousands have had their lives impacted by his message.

And yet now, when interviewers talk to him or talk about him, what seems to captivate them is the man’s life. Not a formula. A life.

Fast forward a few hours. We’ve made it home, I’ve unloaded the van, and it seems we need milk. One thing you’re sure to need after being away for a week of vacation is fresh milk. So off I go to make a Kroger run. I quickly get milk and a couple of other impulse items and get to a check-out line behind someone else who had only come in for a few items. Pleased with my luck at finding a fast moving check-out line, I place my items on the conveyor belt, barely noticing the lady who has gotten in line behind me. I pay my $13.00 and change, take my receipt from the cashier, and just as I’m about to bolt for the car I hear, “God bless you sir.” I turn and the lady behind me hands me a tract – bold red with white and black lettering. The front of the tract reads “Is Jesus Christ your Savior?” I say “thanks” and head for the car.

No conversation with her. No real connection. Her style was more hit-and-run. Only I was the one on the run. I don’t doubt that this is well intended by her. She may know that people don’t like to talk to strangers about religion. So she just does the quick hit with a tract and lets it go at that. She thinks of it as planting a seed. Again, freshly Miller-minded about such things I thought of the “formula.” The tract told me what I need to believe for Jesus to be my savior and for me to go to heaven. As far as I can tell from a hurried glance, every word of it looks true. But this truth came to me void of the relational context Miller writes about.

After a few days at the beach, the drive home listening to the radio talk show, and the run to Kroger, I’m aware again of how critical it is that doctrine be lived. Doctrinal truth shows itself in a life. The absence of a life doesn’t render the doctrine untrue – but it does seem to render it weak, even boring.

Billy Graham is effective with his formula because of his life. A piece of folded paper is less effective because a life is absent. The paper is no less true. By the Spirit, it can change a life – but the Spirit most often seems to work through other lives.

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he says to them, “you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” This statement comes right on the heels of his summary of how the gospel message came to them – not only in word but in the power of the spirit and with full conviction. Their message was backed up by their life.

Tomorrow is Sunday. I’m back at church, doing things pastors do: Teaching the bible, helping lead worship. But this isn’t a day for me to “go back to work.” I want to get back at it tomorrow simply living a life. That’s fairly obvious and quite simple – but not always easy.

With some help from Donald Miller, I’m trying to come back from vacation but not go back to a “job.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

"My Whole Life Has Been a Waste"

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for sake of the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35 TNIV).

I’ll confess, I’ve pretty much written him off.

Say the name “Mike Tyson” and the words and images that come to my mind are void of grace. I say it to my shame, but it’s the truth. Rapist, convict, wife beater, ear biter, animal -that about sums it up. Still, I was troubled when I saw the front page of the June 3-5 issue of USA Today. An article on Tyson ran under this headline: “My Whole Life Has Been a Waste.” Those are Tyson’s own words. He continues:

“I’ll never be happy. I believe I’ll die alone. I would want it that way. I’ve been a loner all my life with my secrets and my pain. I’m really lost but I’m trying to find myself. I’m really a sad, pathetic case.”

I’ve got alot to learn about showing grace and loving like Jesus loved – but I know this much with certainty: no one should ever have to feel that way about their life, at least not in a conclusive, final way. Sure, there are days, seasons and circumstances when anyone could say the same thing – but Tyson’s words should never stand as the final verdict.

Tyson’s words raise a question: what is a “wasted life?” Further, what's the connection between a “wasted life” and a poorly lived life? Does "wasted" require disastrous mistakes or choices? As heart-wrenching as Tyson’s assessment of his life is, there is something yet more tragic. Far too many people are wasting their lives and don’t know it. They’ve not left a trail of wreckage behind them that screams “wasted life.” In fact, to most observers their lives look enviable. Good jobs, nice homes, good looking family, ski trips in winter and beach trips in summer. That’s the life.

But even a life that’s comfortable and attractive can be wasted. And it is wasted because it is spent entirely in the pursuit of something that isn’t worthy of the gift that life is. We’ve all got one life, one shot. What will we do? How will we live it? How will we invest our energies? To whom and to what will we give our best self?

Jesus told a story to make this very point. A certain man was quite savvy and lucky in the conduct of his farming business. His acreage yielded a rich harvest and he found himself with more crops than he could handle. His plan was good business, but not-so-good living. “I’ll expand the business. I’ll build larger barns. I’ll store the surplus and then take early retirement.” That was the business strategy. As for his life, the plan was simple: take life easy, eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12:16-21).

God called this man a fool. He was a fool because on day one of the “be merry” plan he was required to give an accounting of his life. The story says it happened that very night, suggesting to my imagination a sudden and quiet death in his sleep. In an instant his soul was required of him. All he could show was stored crops – and who would get that now?

In his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, John Piper tells of two elderly missionaries, both single women, who were killed overseas in an auto collision. Piper asks, “was that a tragedy?” His answer: no, that was not a tragedy. He then shares a story from Reader’s Digest about a couple who has taken early retirement in Florida. They spend their days boating, playing softball, and collecting sea shells. This, says Piper, is a tragedy. To spend the closing years of your one life collecting shells and playing softball is a tragedy. I don’t take this as a wholesale condemnation of recreation or retirement – but the point is well taken. We’ve got one shot. What will we do? What is worthy of the gift?

Again, the words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). To waste life is to spend our days and our best energy grasping at the good life as our culture defines it, or as we define it in terms of our own cravings and dreams. To yield life, to give it up as a kind of sacrifice for God to use – this is what it means to live and live well.

Interestingly, Mike Tyson has also spoken words that echo this good news, this gospel. Following his recent loss in the ring, Tyson was quoted as saying, “when I was younger, I felt life was about acquiring things. But as I get older, I know life is totally about losing everything.”

Tyson may be closer to redemption than any of us think. Much closer than others whose lives appear to be so much more “together.” Wasted life? Perhaps not. The verdict is still out.

(Suggested summer reading: John Piper, Don't Waste Your Life, Crossway Books, 2003)

Friday, June 10, 2005

A Prophet and a Shower Door

“These people say, ‘the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” (Haggai 1:2)

Last Saturday I felt like Ty Pennington, host of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” I felt handy, like a real pro, like a guy who knows how to fix things. The occasion for my new-found confidence with the tool box was the successful repair of a sliding glass door on my bathtub – a job that took less than 30 minutes and cost less than $5.00. Nothing was made over, and nothing about this project was extreme. But the door was repaired and I had a hand in repairing it. Honestly, that the job required so little is the source of some embarrassment for me. Here’s why.

The door had been broken for months. Many months. Not enough months to qualify as a year – but enough months to get uncomfortably close. The sliding door that acts as a “shower curtain” on our tub lost a small wheel. This wheel allows the door to move smoothly and easily along a metal track. Without the wheel, the door is stuck. Luckily, the other half of the sliding glass door still moved easily, allowing us to step in and out of the shower without trouble.

“I’ll need to fix that,” I mused. My declaration was notably noncommittal.

“That wheel on the shower door needs to be fixed,” my wife patiently observed (as the weeks passed). “Yes, you’re right,” I agreed.

But every day half of the door worked just fine, and the fact that the other half of the door was broken bothered me less and less – until after some weeks or months I hardly noticed it at all. Next thing you know it’s early June, and finally we had an open Saturday. My wife drew up a project list for the day, and the sliding glass door on the tub topped the list.

Around the year 520 B.C. God raised up a prophet in Jerusalem. His message was simple. The people there had come home after decades in exile. They had been given permission to rebuild the temple, but after roughly 15 years of being back in their hometown, the temple was not rebuilt. Some years earlier a start had been made, but the job was abandoned for a variety of reasons.

Maybe at first this troubled the residents of Jerusalem – they could see the foundations and knew the job needed to be finished. But years passed. The temple remained in ruins. The people were busy scratching out a living, trying to grow food, trying to survive. After a while the ravaged temple site became part of the Jerusalem landscape.

So God gave a message to Haggai. “The time is now. You’ve tended to your own homes. You’ve invested energy in making yourselves comfortable here. It’s time to get things in order and put first things first; time to build the Temple.”

For many people who claim a relationship with God, the most formidable challenges in the life of faith are not the big issues like “doubting the existence of God” or “renouncing the faith” or “rejecting the church.” These faith crises are certainly real – but far more often faithful people simply confuse life’s priorities. Belief in God is maintained, church attendance and other religious practices continue, but other things take the place of our highest affections and our best energies. The problem isn’t disordered thinking as much as disordered living.

For some, though they hold sound beliefs, their walk with God is in disrepair, perhaps a state of ruin. But we have a remarkable capacity for tolerating this kind of thing. It doesn’t take long for prayerlessness to feel “normal.” Hang around a church long enough and you’ll see what enormous effort it takes for people to establish a habit of weekly worship, and how easily the same habit can be abandoned.

We need to hear the words of this prophet. Direct, blunt, in your face truth about our capacity for neglecting what is central to life. Haggai’s answer to the apathy of the people isn’t complicated – go gather wood and supplies and do the work. We tell ourselves the same lie that the people of Jerusalem bought into: that there will be a better time. But there won’t be a better time than right now. Don’t wait for things to slow down at work. Don’t wait for the kids to get a little older. Don’t wait. The time is now.

Thirty minutes and five dollars fixed my shower door. What might God do with our modest efforts to put first things first?

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Incredibles (wrap up)

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands (2 Timothy 1:7).

. . . train yourself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7).

When I was in seminary a pastor whom I very much admired tanked his ministry. Paul uses the term “shipwrecked.” I don’t know what happened – but he resigned his church, left his wife, and began selling funeral plans door to door.

My guess is that somehow, very gradually, he had started living Bob Parr’s life. He was getting by, moving from day to day cramped into a tiny little vehicle. The make and model of these suffocating boxes may vary widely. For this gifted preacher, the make and model that folded him up was called “pastor.” That, to me, is particularly sad.

I wonder if there was another way. Is it possible that this man could have salvaged something of his vocation and his family? Tragically, when we feel ourselves cramped and depleted by the lives we live, we often reason (or rationalize) our way to some wrong conclusions. We’re tempted to conclude that, in order to live with “power” and become our truest self, we must throw off every vestige of the confining life we’ve been living. But this isn’t the power or love or self discipline Paul spoke of to Timothy. Seeking this kind of power ironically leaves destruction in its trail – ruined careers, fractured families, disillusioned friends, scarred congregations.

My quest for gospel in The Incredibles begins to break down at this point. Bob Parr finally throws his irritating little boss through five or six walls. This necessitates a new career path of some kind, superhero or no. But the kind of abundance I’m interested in as a follower of Jesus isn’t obtained by stealing abundance from someone else. I return to the closing questions of my last post: what does it mean for us to live with power? How do we become the people God intends for us to be in the lives he’s given us right now? How do you live with power in the job your have today, among co-workers you’ll see again tomorrow, with family members who will be there when you wake up in the morning?

Holding Pixar’s brilliant movie up to the light of scripture, I find these answers.

First, we’ve got to know that there is an enemy and the stakes are high. Bob Parr did not re-discover his identity as Mr. Incredible simply because he was bored. There enters into the story a threat of horrible destruction, a spirit of malice, a figure who craves power but gives no thought to how it is used. This nemesis calls forth a person, a family, capable of putting up a fight. In the life of faith this is commonly called spiritual warfare. Too many Christians don’t take this seriously. It hasn’t occurred to them that there is an enemy actively seeking the destruction of their faith (1 Peter 5:8). What power they have lies dormant – a “super-suit” tucked away in the back of the closet.

Second, there is a need for rigorous training. One of the most amusing scenes in The Incredibles is the moment when Bob tries to fit into his super-suit after years of living a normal average guy life. He looks awful – flabby, bulging. Not the buff figure he once was. It isn’t enough to pull the suit out of the closet and put it on. We’ve got to be able to wear it well. And this requires training. Bob goes to work. Motivated by a need and a challenge, he lifts boxcars to get back in shape. Dallas Willard is dead-on when he says that living like Jesus isn’t something we simply choose to do in a moment of crisis. It’s something we are because of an overall way of life we’ve adopted. Athletes call this way of life “training.” Christians train by shaping life around the classic disciplines: prayer, worship, study, giving, etc. There is no power apart from training.

Third, we need to identify our particular gift, our God-given “power,” and put it to regular use. The Parr daughter, Violet, in her first battle experience, cannot generate an adequate force field to protect her family. After more engagement with the enemy, that changes. She becomes confident in her ability. Paul reminded Timothy to “fan into flame” the gift that had been imparted through the laying on of hands.

This leads to the fourth element of a powerful life of faith: a family. Mr. Incredible could not have prevailed against his enemy (“Syndrome”) alone. His particular gift – sheer physical strength – wasn’t enough. He needed every member of his family, including the youngest and seemingly weakest. They each had a gift that they brought to the fight. God gives us a gift and calls us to use it with in the context of a family, a community of faith. With every member using their God-given power, the gates of hell cannot prevail against God’s purpose and his ultimate victory in the world.

Finally, this power in which we are invited to live as followers of Jesus is really not our own. The fight isn’t ours either. The battle is the Lord’s, and somehow he sees fit to use us. He works through us in our weaknesses. In fact, when we are weak, he is strong. We know power as we decrease and allow him to increase. We don’t get to be the heroes. But we do get to participate in what God is doing.

And this is truly incredible.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Incredibles

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7 NIV)

It’s been a wet week in Atlanta. Almost every day I drive by the neighborhood pool and tennis courts. Even when the pool has been open this week, the lifeguard has been a solitary figure – getting paid to listen to the radio. The cloudy skies and uncommonly cool air have not motivated folks to seek out water.

Sadly, this wet week included Monday – the Memorial Day holiday, and the first Monday of “no school” for my kids. At mid-morning their capacity for creative play hit a lull. I’m not proud to admit it, but I did what many please-let-me-rest parents do. I put in a movie. But it wasn’t just for my kids. I love this movie. This movie looks like it was made for the kiddies, but it wasn’t. Sure, kids love it, but grown ups have good reason to love it too. I’m talking about The Incredibles.

The Incredibles is about a family of super heroes living in a kind of exile. Public opinion has taken a peculiar turn, and “supers” are no longer esteemed and loved. Their exploits on behalf of the common good are no longer regarded as honorable. They are considered to be a nuisance, a threat to the public welfare. “Supers” are forced to go underground, to assume “normal” lives and conceal their powers.

Among these many exiled “supers” is a family of five, the Parr family. We don’t learn until late in the movie of the baby’s special gift or power, but the rest of the family can’t contain themselves, try as they might. Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) is a hulking man of enormous physical strength. His wife Helen (Elastigirl) can stretch and contort to almost any shape. Their daughter Violet makes herself invisible and radiates force fields at will. The middle child is Dash who, true to his name, moves with lightning speed.

I don’t want to spiritualize The Incredibles by finding some “hidden” meaning where none exists. Still, while there may be no theology to speak of in the movie, there is gospel – good news. And the good news in this movie is about power and identity; themes shared in common with our scriptures and with our faith. The Parrs are a family trying hard to conceal who they are. They possess power that they won’t use. But as long as they are living this way, their lives are constricted and flat. It isn't until the Parrs begin using their powers in a large and worthy cause that they become their truest selves.

The picture that is lodged in my mind is the image of Bob Parr – Mr. Incredible – driving home from work. His massive frame is shoved into a tiny little car, his body wrapped around the steering wheel. That image of Bob Parr bulging in the confines of his little car has come to reflect for me the way many of us live our life in Christ. We don’t live with a sense of power. There are moments, even if fleeting, when we sense that the life we’re living isn’t the abundant life Jesus came to give us. Our lives seem constricted, ordinary and routine. We too move about shoved into tiny boxes of day to day just-getting-by patterns of life.

Bob Parr, hiding in his cubicle and his little car, was a frustrated, disengaged, bored man. The good news, the gospel, comes to him as an invitation to once again be Mr. Incredible. The outfit he used to wear has been hidden away, hung like an artifact in a museum. But a moment comes when he clothes himself in the outfit of a “super.” He is re-born.

Paul reminded his protégé Timothy that God has not given us a spirit of fear or timidity, “but of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7 ). His words sound like a call or challenge to Timothy to embrace who God had called him to be, an invitation to his true self.

What would it mean for us live with power, love and self-discipline? What would it mean for us to open the closet where our truest self had been safely tucked away, and become the people God has called us to be?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

You're Qualified

May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus. (2 Timothy 1:16-18 NIV)

The word “community” is being thrown around with great frequency these days. It’s what every church strives to create, and with good reason. Both Old and New Testaments reveal a God who calls into being a people for himself: Israel and Church. Our God is intent on forming a peculiar community that reflects his nature and brings honor to his name. The theological implications of this are many, but beneath all the theology is a simple truth. The life of faith is hard and we will not live it well if left to ourselves. To walk faithfully with Jesus we will need others around us. We need the gift of encouragement that comes from a community of believers.

Encouragement is something that everybody needs and anybody can give. Our need for encouragement is not something that we’re consciously aware of on a daily basis. We may go long stretches without a specific word of affirmation or act of support from others. But eventually we’ll find ourselves up against something that we can’t do by ourselves. Even when it’s something that no one else can do for us, we know we can’t make it alone. When a person is grieving, no one else can do that for them. But no grieving person can endure the season of grief in isolation. They may not want others trying to relieve them of their grief, but they will surely accept a word or gesture of encouragement, some simple assurance that they are not alone, not forgotten.

The power of encouragement is seen in the experience of the apostle Paul. The mighty missionary-preacher-church planter spoke tender words of blessing for a man barely known or mentioned in the New Testament.

Onesiphorous is mentioned only one other time in scripture. Still, this obscure individual is spoken of as the source of great encouragement to the apostle. Nothing is said of his credentials, no explanation offered as to his qualifications for such a ministry. What Paul reports to us isn’t a spectacular deed, but ordinary friendship. Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul’s chains. He was not at all hesitant to associate himself with the prisoner or the prisoner’s faith. He refreshed Paul, he sought him out diligently in Rome, he rendered service to Paul in Ephesus. Even the powerful Paul needed encouragement, and the no-name Onesiphorous was the one who gave it.

If you’ll pay attention, there is surely someone around you today who needs encouragement. You may have to look or listen closely, for those who need it may go to great lengths to disguise the need. Still, they are there – in the place where you work, where you buy groceries, where you get you hair cut, where you workout. In each of these places, someone is craving the slightest word of encouragement or act of kindness.

And the person who can give it is you. You’re qualified.