An old friend passed away not too long ago. She had quite an impact on my life years ago when I first came to know the Lord. I guess she was the closest thing I had to a “mother in the faith.” I was a bit of a stray back then—in college and living with a friend in the back of his farm and garden store. I wanted to be independent and self-sufficient, but the truth was I was still immature and clueless about so much in life. Mrs. McArthur had a soft spot in her heart for strays, and regularly opened her home to me and my friend, as well as to many others. She was warm, hospitable, gracious, and engaging.
At her home there was always good food to eat, stimulating conversation to be had, and lots of encouragement to be found. That encouragement came in a couple of forms. The first was through simple acceptance. At that time, I was working all night three times a week unloading trucks and stocking shelves in a grocery store. Then I would attend class during the day (where I was not setting the academic world on fire). The nights I didn’t work I would sleep on a fold out couch bed in the back of the farm and garden store to whatever noises the animals were making (I didn’t mention that my friend sold animals at his store, did I?). I was living the life! My point is that while I was going through this awkward period, the McArthur home was a place where I was instantly welcomed and made to feel as if I was special instead as opposed to someone kind of stumbling through life.
The other form of encouragement was more direct. Mrs. McArthur had a way of saying fairly outrageous things to you in the form of compliments, observations, suggestions, etc. She might tell me I had the bluest eyes she had ever seen, or that I played the guitar wonderfully, or she was sure I could do this or that. They were all obvious embellishments that I only partially grasped then but embarrass me when I think about them today. Yet for all of her exaggerating, there was not an ounce of insincerity in her. Looking back, I’m convinced it was something much different—I think it was wisdom. I think she knew that if she raised the bar to a certain height, I would try to reach it. So she said what she did because she saw things in me I didn’t see in myself and she communicated them to me in such a way that I have striven to be what she said about me.
I think that’s the kind of encouragement we need more of today. So much of what we offer others is more or less synonymous with comfort. Someone is sick, we seek to lift their spirits or at least commiserate with them. Someone is weak and struggling, we try to say or do something to help them hang in there. I don’t wish to disparage any of this. This is needed and it shouldn’t stop.
But we also need to recognize (and practice) the kind of encouragement that calls people higher. We need to inspire people to courageously pursue worthy things. Isn’t this what Christ did with Peter when he called him a rock? He certainly didn’t look like it at the time! He had done nothing to merit such an evaluation but Jesus nonetheless set the bar there and in time Peter reached it. I’m afraid too many times we end up with mediocrity because those who love us, for whatever reason, don’t push us. Maybe they’ve settled for less and so they allow us to do the same in what Michael Gerson refers to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” I’m not sure of all the reasons, but I’m certain of this—the encouragement Mrs. McArthur gave me made a lasting difference in my life.
Who needs our encouragement?