The Timing of Encouragement
Sometimes I get ideas for this inspirational reflection out the routine of my day. Fortunately, I have learned to pay attention to life, even when its ordinariness would suggest nothing special would happen. Certainly in the realm of the Spirit, our most likely experiences of the Spirit come in the midst of our routine and ordinariness. Of course, most of us would like mountaintop experiences, but we can’t manufacture them. And usually, they don’t come with much frequency. And most of us realize very few people actually live on top of the mountain of the Spirit. I am not one of those people!
My idea for this one emerged in the middle of a conversation I had with a coach. I spend a fair amount of time with coaches and relish that. I have found coaches are quite thoughtful. In effect good coaches are first of all teachers. Knowing this means they have much more in common with me than one might expect. Of course, on game day their job is different than mine. No one would confuse a final examination or paper to be equivalent to a game with a rival opponent. And yet, they are all a kind of performance---a test of whether we have learned enough to perform well.
The coach and I were talking about how athletes and students in general make a commitment to a program—be that a team or an academic major. Clearly, commitment and some form of discipline are necessary to complete successfully the program. The program may be to develop a winner or to get a degree. In neither case is success simply a matter of having it handed to you.
Normally the process is longish and often arduous. There are long days of practice and of studying. There may be setbacks along the way. Sometimes defeat is experienced and that can be frustrating. The real question is how to persevere with the process so that you win or get the degree. I know the process well. I have been an athlete and as student. And I see it from the other side as teacher and coach.
The story could end there, but if that were the case, I would not be writing this. My discussion with the coach moved to a conversation about expectations and encouragement. My attention was sharpened. He said some of his athletes---particularly the younger ones---wanted more encouragement and less expectation. I laughed, because I understand that very well. I think many students would ask for the same deal. As I thought about it, I have expectations and I also dole out a fair amount of encouragement. I also realized this issue was not only true in athletics and academics. It is true in the life of the Spirit, too.
Let’s first look at expectation. Expectations typically mean we will do what is expected. Expectations do not come with choice. While it may not quite be a military order, it is close. When I was a kid, my parents had expectations. As a parent, I had expectations of my two daughters. And now I have some expectations of my grandkids. I do not imply they have choice in the matter. Just do it. Of course, I think my expectations are appropriate and justifiable. I also recognize the possibility that some expectations might not be…but that is a problem with the person who makes expectations.
Encouragement, on the other hand, is a different experience. Encouragement leaves the choice of doing up to the other person. In fact, I encourage him or her to do what there is to do. I imagine encouragement to be my standing beside or behind someone saying, “Come on, you can do it.” I hope they will. Encouragement is affirming and hopeful.
Having written this much, I realize how appropriate this is to my spiritual journey. I understand that God has some expectations of me. Once I say I want to be in relationship with the Holy One, there are justifiable expectations. God expects me to be faithful. God expects that I will spend time to make our relationship healthy. God expects me to begin acting like a disciple of the Spirit. With these expectations, God is not saying, “Do it if you feel like it.” No, expectations assume, in effect, that you will do it. Indeed, expectations assume you want to do it.
But God does not only expect things of us. God is also an encourager. I think of many ways God encourages. Sometimes God encourages me through new, fresh experiences of the Spirit’s presence. Experientially, I am encouraged to press forward in developing my relationship. Another predictable way God encourages me is through other pilgrims of the Spirit. Older disciples offer words of encouragement, stories of potential growth in store for me and extend hugs of hope that I continue on the way.
The spiritual journey is a long one---indeed, it is a lifetime. Every day is a new chance to continue on the way. Each new day brings expectations. And each new day is a day to me to be encouraged on the way. Each day I vow to meet expectations and to appreciate the encouragement to stay the course.