Monday, February 01, 2016

January 31, 2016 Philippians: In Search of Contentment

I woke up early Monday morning, looked at the alarm clock, and was relieved to know it wasn’t time to get up.  But then I noticed that our house was very cold (my family believes I keep the thermostat far too low in the winter and too high in the summer, and since I pay the electric and gas bills I tell them if they would like to offer a contribution we can talk about an adjustment).  It only took a moment to realize something was definitely wrong. In the quiet of the morning I could hear a strange noise through the vent system of the furnace trying to start but then turning off.  It took only a few moments to realize that our heat was out.  My first thought should have been one of gratitude that it wasn’t as cold as it had been the previous week, but it wasn’t; my mind quickly became occupied with all the adjustments to my day to see that the furnace could be fixed.  It took a day and a half for the heat to be repaired and it was cold the next night in the house and that circumstance shaped my thinking throughout that entire time.

It wasn’t the end of the world certainly, but it did occupy my mind quite a bit, and being inconvenienced in such a way brought me to thinking about how easily we are influenced by what takes place around us, by our circumstances.  It doesn’t take much to bring us to a state of discontent.  One change in our morning or day can completely alter our sense of contentment about life.

This morning we conclude our series of messages from the book of Philippians, and as we do we come to one of the most powerful passages in this powerful book.

As we have journeyed through the book of Philippians, each week I have called attention to the circumstances in which Paul found himself.  He was in chains, a prisoner of the Roman Empire, and about to be executed.  And yet, in spite of his circumstances, the Scripture text for this week reveals to us a person who exudes contentment.  How could this be?  Shouldn’t Paul have been angry about his circumstances?  Shouldn’t he have been bitter about the miscarriage of justice that, instead of freeing him, had condemned him to death?  Perhaps Paul could have justified such feelings, but he did not give in to them.

Philippians 4:8-13 –

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In spite of greater affluence, greater opportunity, better medical care, education, and mounds of technology to bring far greater convenience to our lives, I’m not sure we have found any greater sense of contentment. 

Am I wrong?  Are you content?  If so, how did you arrive at such a state?  If not, what do you think makes contentment so elusive?

Considering the state of the world one could be forgiven for believing there is no way to experience any sense of contentment when so much suffering, violence, and other tragedies fill our world.  And I’m not talking about the struggle with depression that is so overwhelming to many people.  That is a very real, very devastating disease and those who struggle with depression will very quickly tell you that it is next to impossible to find any sense of contentment in the midst of that struggle.

Where would we be willing to go to find contentment?  What would we be willing to do to find contentment?  What would we be willing to pay to find contentment?  What would you be wiling to give to find contentment, especially on the level that was present in the life of Paul?

As I thought about this message I wondered a good deal about the difference between happiness and contentment.  Happiness and contentment are not the same; happiness, to me, contains more of an emotional component, while contentment speaks to our basic sense of well-being in our lives.  Contentment is the bedrock sense of who we are and the way in which we view life and our place in this world.

Contentment rests upon a number of factors, but I want to concentrate on just a few of them this morning and do so through the lens of Paul’s sense of contentment, which obviously came from his faith.

1.  Let Faith Change How You Think About Yourself.
Over the course of my ministry I have come to understand that some people need extra encouragement at particular points in their lives.  There is one person who requires a great deal of my time, in terms of offering encouragement.  In fact, it has become a part of my daily routine to offer this person encouragement.  I encourage this person by telling them that they are a beloved child of God and that they are able to fulfill the call of God on their life, and many other words of encouragement.  And then I turn away from the mirror and try and live the words that I spoke to myself.

Most of us probably believe that our contentment has far more to do with external circumstances, but our contentment is not based so much upon what is happening around us but within us, and a great deal of that contentment is based upon the way we view ourselves, and a great deal of that view is derived from others.  It is a very special and secure person who does not draw their sense of self from others.  I find Paul to be a very interesting person, and one of the reasons is that he didn’t seem to worry what others thought about him, and I don’t mean that in a way that intimates that he was insensitive.  I just believe that Paul had a very strong sense of who he was, and I believe that came because of his faith.

In verse 8, when he says, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things, Paul is reminding us of the power of the mind and how it can help us to see our circumstances and our lives as blessing or struggle.  It begins with what we think and how we think.  If we have a tape of negativity and defeatism running through our minds, telling us that we are not as worthy as others, that our life is lesser than the lives others are leading, that we can never overcome our circumstances, it will be next to impossible to find any sense of contentment.  But, if we follow the example of Paul and erase the tape in our mind that is running nothing but negativity and replace it with a positive message, things become different.  If we think about the fact that we are a child of God and therefore a person with as much worth and value as anyone else, and if we believe, like Paul, that I can do all this through him who gives me strength (verse 13), we won’t feel overwhelmed and defeated by our circumstances.

2.  Let Faith Change How We Think About Others
In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you us, it will be measured to you.  I think Jesus’ warning not to judge is applicable for several other reasons as well, and one of those reasons is because no matter how much we think we know people, no matter how much we think we know their circumstances, no mater how much we think we know their motivations, no matter how much we think we know their problems, and no matter how much we think we know their blessings, we really don’t know. We think we know people, but we don’t. 

The person we believe is living a life full of blessing and abundance?  Maybe they are not.  The person we believe to have it made, living a life that seems incredibly charmed?  Maybe they are not.  That person we think needs to pull their life together and just get their act together?  We don’t know what’s going on.  The person who sometimes acts in ways we don’t understand?  We don’t know what they’ve experienced in life.  The person who struggles with relationships and we think they simply need to get serious and grow up?  We don’t know what has happened in their lives to make them very guarded when it comes to other people.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at Jesus was his willingness to associate with “questionable” people.  The truth is, we’re all questionable people in some way.  You can argue that point with me if you like, but I’m not changing my opinion, because I’ve worked with people for far too long.  And I don’t mean that in a negative, condemning way.  We are all people who struggle with problems and issues and none of us are any different from any other in that respect.

And Paul faced the same criticism as Jesus, because while many – including Peter and some of the other disciples – were resistant to all these strange, unfamiliar Gentile people coming into the church, Paul was welcoming them with open arms.  They were different, but underneath the surface differences we’re not really all that different.  Paul took his example from Jesus and would not allow his mind to be shaped by the culture in which he lived in terms of how he viewed people, and neither should we.

3.  Let Faith Change How We Think of Our Circumstances.
We are profoundly shaped by our circumstances.  Tanya’s grandmother was, we might say, thrifty.  She was a child of the Great Depression, and it was impossible to live through such a time without being shaped by the great need of the time.  To the end of her life she would not throw anything away.  When her bread became moldy she picked the mold off the bread.  I couldn’t imagine doing so, but I didn’t live through a time such as the Depression, but that experience had a profound affect upon her.

When I was on sabbatical last year I learned some interesting lessons.  One lesson that I discovered was a change in our circumstances doesn’t guarantee a change in who we are and how content we feel about life.  Many of us long for the time when we reach retirement, anticipating the time when we get to do what we want, when we want.  If we could just escape the drudgery of work, we would much more content about life.  I anticipated very much the idea of three months to do what I wanted.  And while I enjoyed the time, and enjoyed the break from the pressures of trying to keep up with so many responsibilities, I quickly found that a change in my circumstances did not automatically bring about a change in my sense of contentment.  Contentment, I realized, was a result not of my external circumstances, but my internal thinking processes.

Our circumstances, however, can teach us many lessons, and one of those lessons is that while we spend a lot of energy in life in an effort to reduce difficult circumstances and in an effort to make ourselves comfortable, we must remember that if we never experience discomfort and difficulty, we will never have an adequate understanding of what life is like for billions of people in this world, and we will never develop a sense of empathy, understanding, and compassion.

What would it be like, for instance, to live in the war zone that is Syria, which is less of a nation than it is a war zone with the appearance of national borders, and where millions of people have found it necessary to pick up what few things they can carry, to pay someone to give them a life jacket that will more likely cost them their life than to save it, to load their families into a small rubber raft for a journey across the Mediterranean Sea, with no promise of surviving the journey and if you do you find you must walk across Europe in hopes of finding a home in which the government will not take the valuables and cash you managed to bring with you?

What would it be like to wake each day and wonder how you will feed your family?  What would it be like to wake each day with the knowledge that you must send your child on a walk of many miles to carry back to your home a little bit of clean water.  What would it be like to wake each day in a land where you could be persecuted even to the point of death just because of claiming faith?  What would it be like to live in the southern portion of our hemisphere, where parents face the agonizing choice of sending their children, alone, on the terrifying journey to this country in order to escape the violence of the drug trafficking in their homelands?

I would never diminish anyone’s difficult circumstances, but when we experience times of difficulty, rather than being drawn into ourselves we should pray that God would use those times to open our hearts to the sufferings of others, to give us compassion and empathy as we answer the call to minister to others.  When we do this, we can truly say that we can do all this through him who gives me strength!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January 24, 2016 Philippians: Keep On Keepin' On!

I have long been fascinated by the psychology of groups of people, in particularly the way in which we do not realize how our thinking is shaped by forces in society.  I think this is particularly evident in the way in which we associate ourselves with sports teams.  There is a lot of psychology in wanting to be associated with those who are successful and those who are winners.  We live in a world that values those who are successful and those who are considered winners; no one wants to be associated with losers.  This is even reflected in our language.  Have you ever noticed how, when watching a ball game, we will say we won, but they lost. Or, we might jump us and say we did it!  We scored!  But we will say, I can’t believe they blew that play!  When something good happens, it’s we, but when it’s not good, it’s they, and we probably don’t even notice we use that kind of language.  Perhaps that it is the subconscious urge to be associated with winning and with success that blinds us to this use of pronouns.  We don’t want to be associated with losing and with a lack of success so even our language is affected, albeit in a way that we don’t even notice.

This is representative of the way in which we place value in our society.  Our society is so taken with success and with winning that value is attached to those who are winners, not losers.  Value is attached to those who can generate money, not cost money.  Value is attached to those who succeed in business and climb to the top of the corporate ladder, not to those who are consigned to the basement mailroom.
You might not recognize the name Tom Monihan but there is a good chance that at some time you have patronized the business he founded.  Tom Monihan founded Domino’s Pizza, building it into a very successful chain of restaurants.  Beginning with one store it eventually grew into hundreds and attained a value into the billions of dollars.  In the late 80s he attracted attention when he placed his business holdings up for sale, after deciding to devote his life to a different goal.  Upon selling his business empire, he would spend his time and money traveling the world building churches and chapels.

Why, many people asked, would someone walk away from such a successful business and spend his money building churches, especially when many of them would be constructed in remote and destitute corners of the globe?  Countless people worked hard in business without attaining even a fraction of his success, so why would he walk away?  It was, in the opinion of many, a backward step in life, and a loss.

How do you measure loss and gain, in any true sense of measurement?  What does it really mean to succeed?  What does it really mean to lose?  One of the great truisms of Scripture is that it upends so many of the ways in which society assigns value, how it defines value, and how it defines gain.

As we continue our series of messages from Paul’s letter to the Philippians we come to 3:7-14, where Paul writes –

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ
and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

This is undoubtedly a passage written by a man who knew he was very near to the end of life, as I’ve mentioned each week of this series, and it really brought to Paul a very sharp focus about his life, how he thought about his life and the things to which he had devoted his time and his energies.  It would appear, from the outside, that Paul was a loser.  He was in prison and close to execution.  Many of the churches he founded were struggling.  Perhaps there were those who found him to be an object of ridicule.

But Paul was not one to be pitied, and he certainly was not seeking anyone’s pity.  It is very obvious that Paul was completely satisfied with his life and how it had been spent.  Whatever looked to be a loss, Paul said it was a gain for him.  He hadn’t lost his freedom; he gained opportunities to share his faith in the capital of the Roman Empire.  He wasn’t about to lose his life; he was about to gain eternity.
To those whom Paul wrote, there might have been some sense of despair, as their friend and leader was soon to be lost to this life.  In this passage, there are so many themes upon which we could concentrate today, but I want to focus on just one.  With all the final words Paul offered, one of the strongest messages was, to paraphrase it, Keep On Keepin’ On! I press on, he says, toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

In keeping with that theme, here are a few reminders this morning –

Keep On, Because You Are Not Alone.
Brothers and sisters, Paul says in verse 13.  That’s a phrase of friendship, of affection, and it speaks of a bond of faith.  Paul might have been absent from his friends, but he knew he was not alone.  One of the great blessings of being a person of faith is the bond we share with one another, and I hope and pray that everyone who walks through the doors of our church – or any church – will know the church to be a place where they can come and never be alone.

It’s an irony of our modern world, I fear, that while we are surrounded by people so much of the time, so many people are lonely.  They live in crowded neighborhoods and work in offices full of people; they walk down crowded hallways of schools or busy sidewalks teaming with people, and yet they feel alone

What were among the final words Jesus spoke to his followers?  I am with you always (Matthew 28:20).  It is a promise that we do not walk alone through this life.  The presence of God and his Spirit, certainly, are upon us but so is the presence of his people in our lives, those whom we can call brothers and sisters in faith, in hope, and in encouragement.

One of the great truths of which we want to be assured in life is whether or not there will be someone who will mourn with us in our time of loss, comfort us in our time of need, and celebrate with us in our time of joy.  To know we are not alone is a great gift.

Keep On, and Don’t Quit.
It’s hard to be consistent with anything.  Here we are almost at the end of January so I’ll ask you this question – how are those New Year’s resolutions working out for you?  Anyone still managing to keep them?  Anyone remember what their resolutions were?  It’s hard to be consistent and to keep from quitting.  I’ve long said that if anyone were to build a monument in my memory they would get halfway through and quit.  And everyone who walked by that half-finished monument would immediately know it was for me, because it wasn’t finished.  Hey, look at that half-finished statue – that’s a monument to Dave, because he would give up halfway through a project.

It’s so easy to quit.  I used to run in a lot of 5K and 10K races, and I almost never ran by myself; I tried to always run with a friend, and I did so because it was easier to keep going when there was someone there to encourage you – come on, keep going, don’t quit!  That’s one of the great benefits of being among our brothers and sisters, isn’t it, people who will encourage us and remind us not to quit.

I know it’s easy to quit, but don’t quit.  I know it’s easy to say I’ve tried and tried.  I’ve tried to turn my life around.  I’ve tried to change.  I’ve tried to be different.  I try to believe harder, live better, and prayer harder, but I just can’t manage to keep at it.

Paul had so many challenges to face.  In II Corinthians 11:22-29 he offers a long list of challenges he faced – 23  I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?  I would find it easy to quit after just one or two of those challenges!  It would have been easy, considering the challenges, for Paul to quit, but he didn’t.  We see this time and again in so many of the Biblical characters, as they suffered great difficulties to the point that most people would have given up, and yet they continued to persevere.  After the crucifixion, the disciples were back in the upper room, fearful for their lives, wondering what might happen next.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John, perhaps, were considering returning to their fishing boats.  Matthew, perhaps, was considering returning to the tax office.  But they did not.

All of us, at some point, consider giving up.  And certainly, as we move through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the message we find from this one who writes at the end of his life, who continued to be faithful, was that I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (verse 14).  Paul never quit.  He never gave up.  Don’t let life and its struggle wear you down to the point where of saying I quit!  Don’t quit.  Don’t give up. 

Keep On, Because You Are Loved.
Maybe sometimes we feel unloved; maybe sometimes we feel as though no one cares.  And the reality is that it’s hard to love some people and some groups.  At every point in history, and even in our age – when we believe we have progressed to a greater level of enlightenment and openness and acceptance – we’re still not very good at understanding how we label some groups as being lesser than others and less deserving of love and acceptance.  It’s just how, unfortunately, we operate as humanity.  We want to be the ones to have the privilege of passing judgment upon others and to have the right not only to say who is worthy or unworthy of our love but also who is worthy or unworthy of God’s love.  And yet the truth that always comes through loud and clear in the Scriptures is that God loves every person, no matter who they are and Jesus calls us to love every person as well, even those who would be considered our enemies – 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  (Matthew 5:43-47).  It’s very easy to love those who love us, and I am grateful for those who encourage and love me and in return I am more than happy to love them and to be encouraging to them.  But we are called to go far beyond that level of love.  We are called to love every person.

In another congregation I served we developed a connection with a residential home for foster children.  There were cottages on the property and 15 or 20 kids could live in each one.  On the occasion of one of our visits we had a birthday party for some of the kids and one young lady read to us a poem she had written.  She was 15 or 16 years old and her poem was titled Welcome To My World, and it was a harrowing, heart-breaking journey through the struggles of her life.  It was a window that told us of the abuse, the struggles, and the difficulties she had experienced, and raised the question of who could love her.  It was hard to listen to her words and our reaction to her experiences was to question why any young person should have to experience such struggles.  What kind of world is it that would harm a young person in such a way and cause her to believe that she was not loved?  What she was asking was will anyone love me?  Will anyone take me into their lives and care about me?  In a world that assigns value according to winners and losers and the successful and unsuccessful, can I be of value to anyone?  What kind of world does this to a young person?  Our world does.

It’s easy to forget we are loved, but we need to remember that perception is not always reality.  We might think we are alone, but we are not.  We might think we can’t keep going, but we can.  We might think we are not love, but we are.

No matter what, keep on keepin’ on!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

January 17, 2016 Philippians: How To Be An Encourager

When I served as an associate minister back in the 80s, I often received phone calls from Lillie Franklin, a member of our congregation.  I was always happy to hear from Lillie, as she was a very kind, encouraging person.  Many of our conversations began with an invitation for me to take the short trip from the church to her house to enjoy some of her delicious, homemade fried pies.  We would sit on her porch, or at her kitchen table, and I would enjoy the conversation and one of her pies, along with a scoop or two of ice cream that made it even better.  Lillie always had a kind and encouraging word to share, and would often tell me how much she thought I looked like the actor Tom Selleck (which was never true, but I was always happy to hear the comparison).

All of us have encouragers in life.  Who have been your encouragers?  You were probably thinking of some of them as I talked about Lillie.  What a gift we have in our encouragers!  And let us not forget that we have the blessing of being an encourager to others.

We are continuing our series of messages from the book of Philippians, and today we come to a message title How To Be An Encourager.  Our Scripture text is not one that is often referenced when studying Philippians, but it should not be overlooked either, as it has some powerful words to offer about encouragement.  As we have journeyed through the book of Philippians we have found there to be a strong theme of encouragement, and tucked away in this passage are some words of encouragement.

Follow along as I read Philippians 2:19-30 –

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you.
20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.
21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me.
24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.
26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.
27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.
28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.
29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him,
30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.

Last week I referenced the story from Luke’s gospel that tells of Jesus healing the ten lepers, of which only one returned to offer his thanks.  As I spoke about that story I used the phrase be the one.  I appreciate that several of you mentioned that phrase after the service, and I’m going to use the phrase this week for each point I would like to make.

1.  Be the one to find something good to say.
In one of my D.Min. classes, on the first day, my classmates and I found ourselves finding a seat among the desks, which had been arranged in a circular pattern.  The professor began the class by asking one of the students to say something encouraging about the person sitting to his right.  At the time, none of us were acquainted with one another, and I felt a sense of relieve that the professor had not called upon me.  The student obviously struggled to find something encouraging to say about the other, and we all were asked, in turn, to do the same.  It was a difficult exercise, to say the least.  The professor was not out to make anyone uncomfortable; he was simply making a point.  Watch and observe other people, he said, and you can find something positive and encouraging to say about others.  It was a good lesson for us.

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29 that we should not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29).  It is a much-needed reminder of our call to be encouragers to other.

In verse 20 of today’s passage, Paul writes of Timothy that I have no one else like him.  Imagine how that statement must have encouraged Timothy!  Paul knew a lot of people.  He worked with the giants of the early church.  He knew Peter, and most likely the other disciples.  In his travels, and his work with so many congregations, Paul knew many impressive and wonderful people.  And yet it is of Timothy that he says I have no one else like him.  Imagine what an encouragement that must have been to Timothy!

Be the one to find something good to say.

2.  Be the one who can go beyond your own struggles and be an encourager.
Sometimes we forget that when people ask us how we’re doing they are asking a rhetorical question, but we begin offering a long list of what is wrong in our world.  Please don’t hear me as being insensitive to anyone’s struggles, but we must remember that we are not the only ones who experience difficulties in life, and we cannot allow our struggles and our difficulties to keep us from encouraging others.

Sometimes we need to be encouraged, and sometimes we need to be an encourager.  Paul was someone who, considering his circumstances, needed to be encouraged.  But Paul wasn’t lost in his own problems.  Each week, as we’ve traveled through the book of Philippians, I’ve mentioned Paul’s difficult circumstances.  He was in chains, under arrest, and awaiting his execution.  It doesn’t get much worse than that!  And yet it’s really rather miraculous that Paul could so clearly see beyond his own struggles to be an encourager to others and not seek encouragement solely for himself.

Paul even decides to send his friend Epaphroditus back to Philippi to encourage the congregation there.  I’m sure Paul could have greatly benefitted from his continued presence, but he was worried about the members of that congregation and about Epaphroditus.

I’m often touched to enter a hospital room to visit someone, attempting to encourage the person, and they become an encourager to me!

Be the one who can go beyond your own struggles and be an encourager.

3.  Be the one who encourages – today!
I have hear people speak of their regrets in life, and many of those regrets have to do with missed opportunities to speak with someone about important matters.  In a previous congregation Tanya and I were blessed by a couple who were like second parents to us.  They were such wonderful encouragers to us and meant a great deal to us.  The husband, unfortunately, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  After some months, he was in the hospital and had been unconscious for a number of days.  His weakened condition and the amount of medication needed to manage the pain had caused him to remain unconscious.  His wife expressed to me on several occasions of how she wished she had the opportunity to speak with her husband one more time.

Miraculously, she was given that opportunity.  One day, late in the afternoon, I walked into his hospital room to visit with her and she told me an amazing story.  Just after lunch, her husband suddenly awoke, sat up in bed, and they talked for about an hour.  In spite of his weak condition and the amount of medication he had been given, he was able to speak clearly, with the opportunity for both of them to say their final words to each other and other important matters.  After about an hour he put his head back on the pillow and never regained consciousness.  It was an opportunity few people receive.  It was, I believe, a miracle. 

Do not put off what you need to say.  Say it today.  We are not guaranteed tomorrow.  Paul knew he did not have a lot of time left, and I that realization certainly puts life into perspective.  I’m not trying to be morbid, but time is a precious gift and we have no idea how much time we have in this life.  Paul did not put off until later the encouragement he was able to offer in the moment.

Be the one who encourages – today!

4.  Be the one who understands the power of words and actions.
We must understand the power of our words, to build up or tear down.  The book of James talks very powerfully about the power of words and the manner in which they can be a blessing or a curse.  In James 3:3-12 we read –

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,
but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Our words can build up or tear down.  And allow me to add this – it’s not just the right words that we must offer, it’s also being willing to speak out when the time calls for us to do so.  There are times when silence is as unfortunate as the wrong words.

When I was in high school there was a student who received a lot of harassment.  There was a great deal of speculation about him and some hurtful rumors spread about him.  It was difficult for him to walk down the hall without hearing hurtful and insulting comments.  This young man and his family attended my church, though he never sat with the rest of us.  A few times I wondered why he never associated with us and it took me some years to understand why.  For one, we never invited him to sit with us and, secondly, I never stood up for him.  While I never participated in the name-calling and insults that were hurled his way, neither did I speak up.  Too many times I stood quietly and failed to come to his defense.

I very much regret that now.  I wish I could turn back time and have the opportunity to come his defense.  Navigating the social scene in high school is difficult for anyone, and my silence contributed to the difficulty faced by this young man.  I could have been an encouragement to him by standing with him and standing up for him.

You will recognize, no doubt, the name of the Biblical character Barnabas.  Did you know that was not his given name? Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph.  Barnabas was a nickname, and means Son of Encouragement.  Isn't that a beautiful fact to know, that Barnabas was such an encourager that it became his name!  What would people choose as our nickname? Unfortunately, I did not earn the name of encourager with the young man from my high school and my home church.  I imagine Barnabas would have quickly stood up for him, encouraging him in both word and deed.
Be a Barnabas.  Don’t be silent when the moment calls for you to speak.  Be willing to speak up for the ones who need an encourager.  Be the one who understand the power of words and actions.  Be the one who can go beyond your own struggles and encourage others.  Be the one with something good to say.