The Art of Encouragement (3)
Question 3: Whose work is the work of encouragement? (Our logic here: because God, so also we.)
1. It’s God’s work: the work of the Trinity.
a. The Father’s work: Ps. 10:7, “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.” (Cf. Rom. 15:5; 2 Thess. 2:16)
b. The Son’s work: Matt. 14:27, Jesus walking on water, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (cf. Phil. 2:1)
c. The Spirit’s work: Acts 9:31, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.”
2. It is all of our work.
a. Heb. 3:13, “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
b. 1 Thess 4:18, “Therefore encourage each other with these words.”
c. 1 Thess 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
3. It is the unique work of a few.
a. Barnabas, the “son of Encouragement”: Acts 4:36, “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement).” Again in Acts 11:23, “When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” He takes Mark after Paul had rejected him (Acts 15:36-41).
b. Some have the “gift” of encouragement: Rom. 12:8, “if a man’s gift is encouraging, then let him encourage.” And thank God for them. EX: Kim Alexander.
Question 4: Why do we need encouragement?
Answer: Because the default setting of the world, the flesh, and the devil is to beat us down. Entropy requires no effort. Discouragements proliferate like weeds. (EX: I shared a story here about a hurtful exchange with one of my grad school professors.)
And there's the litany of anti-artmaking forces:
- worn out, burned out
- the inner voices
- confusion or ignorance
- we succumb to distractions
- hurtful words
- we feel it to be hopeless or futile
- the harshness of a competitive art culture.
So Wolterstorff in Art in Action:
“The institution’s emphatic insistence on stylistic innovation and whole-hearted devotion leaves behind it long trails of broken and maimed lives—lives consumed by jealousy, lives in which humanity has withered away into neurotic or obsessive concern with art, lives judged failures because radical stylistic innovation or critical success was not theirs to achieve.”
The natural result of fears, left unchecked, is to make a thing smaller or to destroy it. The power to resist giving in to our fears is courage; and it is the refreshing words of encouragement that remind us who we are, remind us in fact of the high calling that God has placed on each of our lives.
Question 5: Who are the people whose encouragement matters the most?
Answer: those who are closest to us.
1. Family and friends: EX: MEM.
2. Our hero-mentors: EX: Coach Norman Dale/Gene Hackman in Hoosiers.
Conversely, it hurts the most when we don’t receive such words from them.
Question 6: Why does it matter that we speak words of encouragement.
Let me say first that words alone do not constitute the highest kind of encouragement. It is only words and actions together that produce such a kind. Words without deeds often turn hollow; the speaker is seen as a fake and the words become an irritant to the ear, and at that point it's best to shut up until you put up.
It’s a wonderful thing, though, to see artists whose work is not only praised but bought—and God be praised, and for crying out loud, patronized. EX: Laura Jennings.
However, my point here is to draw attention to the importance of speaking and hearing words. Partly, my concern is with a habit I observe in folks that makes them reticent to speak. The reasons are various. Some of us are shy; our nature is reserved and not given to many words. Some of us are worried we won’t say the right thing, so better say nothing we figure. Some, like your parents, don’t want you to get a big head, so they practice the fine art of withholding affirmation. Some figure that you know already that you’re good, so why tell you; it’s assumed, what’s there to say. And some, like myself sometimes, struggle with being self-absorbed or insecure. We just don’t see you because we can’t see you, because we only see ourselves.
For all of us, there is plenty of room to grow in this area.
But when we speak words out loud to each other, we are speaking out loud each other's worth. We are speaking your, specific, special goodness: “It is good that you are you! It is good that God is making you more you. It is good what you do, your art doings, your art longings, your art imaginings. The world truly needs a healthy you."
This kind of speaking is God’s primary work on earth. He not only makes things, he loudly calls them good, for all the universe, for angels and beasts and the sons of men, to hear, “It is very good.” Our God is the God who speaks and so we strive to reflect his manner by speaking our own beneficient words to each other.
Now there is another reason why we want to speak out loud encouragement, and it is this sense which Frederich Buechner picks up on in his essay, “The Speaking & Writing of Words,” that the reality of our love for one another does not “fully exist for you until you have given a word to it.” As he puts it:
“It is not that you feel love and then say, ‘I love you’, but that until you say ‘I love you’, you have not fully loved because it is the essence of love as it is also the essence of fear, anger, grief, joy and so on to speak itself—to make itself heard and to make itself hearers.”
When we speak words of encouragement to each other, we are stepping out of the lonely world that we are in ourselves, by ourselves, and entering in to the larger, richer world of community, where we find ourselves to be more truly ourselves. When we speak encouragement, we are giving away love and receiving love. And is this not what the world desperately needs? Is this not what Jesus said would become the mark of recognition of his followers? Is this not what our hearts burn for, this kind of love?
Question 7: To what end do we encourage each other?
I’m the kind of person who sees the world not simply in terms of the good versus the bad, but in the good versus the better versus the best. I ask myself constantly, Why not seek the best? Why not live the richest, most wacky and wonderful life possible?
Why not live a maximalist life? Anyone can live a minimalist life; it requires no effort. But I love this phrase that I find in the writings of the 12th century Abbot Suger of St. Denis (1122 AD), “with all inner purity and with all outward splendour.” It speaks of the marriage of the ascetic and the aesthetic, and suggests the possibility that the copious beauty that we see in the physical nature surrounding us can become a guidepost for the kind of work that we as humans ought to be on about: the making of beauty liberally, the endless making of imaginative artifacts.
If then our goal, according to the first chapter of Genesis, is to flourish in all our potential, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with all the goodness of the labor of our hands, then it seems to me that we should give each other the best, in this case, the best, most carefully chosen, loving words of encouragement. If the natural condition of humans is to be afraid, as in fact we find at the very beginning in Genesis 3, then what we need is courage to overcome this constant threat of fear. If for an artist to grow and to become everything that she is meant to be she must pass through many experiences of pain, each experience ushering her to a new level of maturity, then she will need all the encouragement she can get to fend off the temptations to give up or to settle for an easy, safe, self-protective life that in no way resembles the kind of life that Jesus invites us to, an abundant, magnificent life (John 10:10), or as St. Paul puts it in his second letter to Timothy, “the life that is truly life,” a blessed life.
With the right words of encouragement, animating our fragile hearts with courage to face each day with all the intelligent wisdom and humble confidence that we see in the life of Jesus, there is no telling what we as artists could accomplish in this world. There is no telling what blessing of joy and justice would cover our cities. There is no telling what beauty would ravage the hearts of men.
A Church that is filled with artists who are more daring, more playful, more fully alive is a Church against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. It is a Church that transforms neighborhoods and renews the culture and fills the earth with the glory of God.
It is for such a vision that I labor and pray. Amen.