by Deac. Mary J. Moerbe
In an ironic twist, encouragement means entirely different things to different groups of people. For many, it has become a matter of sharing personal strength or perhaps reinforcing the other person’s confidence in him- or herself. It’s a catchphrase to accompany empowerment in inspirational memes.
Such self-focus and inward direction generally turns me off. Anyone who knows me would know better than point me inward! Let’s leave puffing up to baked goods and balloons, and keep it far away from my emotional and spiritual well-being, especially during times of stress and distress!
I haven’t made a formal study of it, so correct me if I’m wrong, but who needs to be more encouraged than those lacking in courage, those in need of something beyond—and explicitly outside—themselves? And this, I humbly suggest, can be very comforting news. When you feel like you can’t bear it all, well, maybe you can’t. Maybe perspective has not left you, even though well-meaning advice suggests you buck up, turn a third cheek, and accomplish x, y, or z. Maybe your personal strength isn’t up for another fight, another loss, or another attack via myriad forms within this world.
You may well be honest-to-goodness done.
I have been thinking about courage and encouragement as I spend my days apart from my family. I get to look lovingly into the eyes of two little preemies, while my beloved is hours away with the rest of our children. I am blessed to receive much encouragement as others bear my burdens with me, as they lend me their strength, skills, and vocations, and graciously give me the comforts, promises, and living Words of Jesus. But no one needs to be impressed by me. This isn’t about me. There is nothing impressive about me regarding all this. This hospital scene is much, much bigger than I am.
I suspect some people—out in this wide world, not thinking of my dear supporters—intend praise to be encouragement. But hard times aren’t a time for the distressed to consider appearances. Perhaps there are times when we needn’t make people proud. I know I’m not out to inspire. I just have to take it one day at a time and respond to the moments before me. After all, when you’re struggling to live the hour before you, how can you possibly live up to praise, too?
But our need finds perfect fulfillment in Jesus. Even our need for courage and strength is answered graciously in Christ. Our struggles receive courage. Courage that is sometimes hidden from our own senses. I almost wonder if our courage is sometimes credited to us for the sake of Christ despite our tremendous fears.
Take heart. Here is courage: the Man stumbling to Calvary, the Word made Flesh that enters your ears, the humble bread and wine joined to the incarnation, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith. Here is what we lack and what we most need. We need that courage which only comes from the mouth and hand of Another, that life, hope, strength, and faith that can only come from the One much greater than you or me.
So, friends, this is what friendly advice I offer to you for hard times to come. Next time you need a little encouragement, don’t look within. Please don’t turn there even after a friend suggests it’s safe to do so. Any safety you find within is smaller than you and just as fragile.
Try not to rely too heavily on praise either. See past the words to the people God has placed in your life, who are sharing your burden with you. Remember that life is often easier when it isn’t revolving entirely around yourself.
Now, sometimes you can look around and find encouragement in the creation around you. That can seriously help: shifting perspective, lightening moods, and granting a breather in times of distress. But that too can be overwhelming. Don’t fault yourself if looking out highlights mortality and the many losses and disappointments of a terribly fallen world.
Are you expecting me next to say “look up”? Even that can mean different things to different people. Is “looking up” the act one must accomplish to earn comfort or peace? Is “looking up” a password to activate God in a person’s life? Of course not.
Instead, if you can, listen. Receive the “consolation of the brethren,” which is the encouragement and fortification of the Church. Remember the hope that is already yours in Baptism, and, when even remembering seems too much to accomplish, rest in our Lord who remembers us as clothed in Christ.
This life is hard. We were not created to be surrounded by deceit, death, and sin. Our bodies are not meant for disease and distress. Confusion adds to chaos, and even our rational minds are left grasping for focus, for a step forward, for a way to carry on. As the needs and weaknesses of this world weave throughout our day, they are bigger than we are, but not bigger than He who provides for us. God will still work His Will, forming good even out of evil.
In our pursuit to fulfill the Law of Love, we can find the normal outlets and expressions of love cut off.
There are times when nearly all we can do is meander through gray areas. Then even more trying times may come, filled with loss and grief, clouding thoughts and interactions, when we may need—or be needed—the most. Blinding and dizzying, complications can peep out and peak out without a moment’s notice. Yet some things remain simple enough: He who sustains us is faithful and true. It is He who keeps breath entering and leaving our lungs. It is even He who allows us to feel numb as surreal times
In this life we wait for the restoration of creation and resurrected life to come. And while we wait, all we can do is plug away at what is before us. These days have come and this time will be spent. We’ll need Law and Gospel. We may literally face life and death. We may be pierced through the heart, yet Christ came, a fragile infant, a spoken Word, and a light into deep darkness. Christ still comes through Word and Sacrament, bearing the burdens of His Bride and brothers in baptism, and Christ will come again.
Our Courage has come, is come, and is sure to come again. He will change us and we will become like Him. And until then, His external gifts bring us hope and healing, and His wounds heal. His forgiveness comes again and again, even as His constancy is proven time immemorial and even as courage also falls under the theology of His cross. Glory be to God.
Mary J. Moerbe serves as diaconal writer for the Cranach Institute. Her books include Family Vocation, How Can I Help? God’s Calling for Kids, and Whisper, Whisper: Learning About Church for Toddlers, set to be released this summer. Her husband is a pastor and they have been blessed with six children, two of them brand new twins in the NICU.