I went to two church services this last Sunday morning. The first was an African-American Baptist church, and the second was an evangelical church, which I call the “pen church” because I get a new pen there every time that I attend.
Here are some items:
A. Both pastors made a similar point about encouragement. The topic of the first pastor’s sermon actually was encouragement. He was saying that church should be a place where people encourage and express concern for one another, for there are not too many places in the world where people can receive encouragement. The topic of the second pastor’s sermon was not encouragement, per se, but it talked more about finding one’s calling. Still, the second pastor was saying that people who find their calling encourage others. The second pastor went on to talk about how there is so much negativity in the world.
A while back, a preacher wrote to me that I should spend my time and energy encouraging people in the body of Christ rather than nitpicking sermons. I think that he misunderstood my purpose in writing these Church Write-Ups (see here for my post on that), but his comment did make me think some about Christian encouragement. How do I do it? And what exactly am I supposed to say to people?
A lot of times, Christian encouragement comes across as phony and artificial: as saying nice things to people in order to fulfill some divine command. The pastor at the first service that I attended Sunday morning touched on that. If memory serves me correctly, he was saying that he would like encouragement, but he does not want fifty people lining up to tell him that he preached a nice sermon. For one, he said, his number one critic was sitting in the front row, and that is his wife. His wife and God will tell him if he was too prideful in giving the sermon. (On a side note, back when I was listening to his sermons on the Internet, he said in one message that his mom, when she was alive, rebuked him for being too prideful and showing off when giving a particular sermon.) Second, he said that many people will probably tell him that they liked his sermon because they have nothing else to say!
One thing that I can say about negativity is that at least it’s authentic: when people are saying something negative, they are usually saying what they actually think! While I struggle myself with how to “encourage” people in the body of Christ, though, I would rather deal with fake positivity from others than negativity. A person I know posted a status that asked if we prefer affability or authenticity. I said affability: if someone does not like me, that is his or her business, but I want to be able to interact with that person comfortably. I can do so when the person is affable.
I am not sure how to encourage people in a church setting when I do not know them. The pastor at the first service gave some examples, such as telling a person he or she looks good this morning, or that it is good to see him or her. I do not quite have the social courage right now to do that! (Plus, I do not want to come across like I am hitting on someone!) His sermon did sensitize me, a bit more, to the importance of showing concern for people, of caring about what they are going through and rooting for them. I can do this online and in more personal settings, with people I know. I struggle with the Christian teaching, or the implication that some Christians make, that Christians are supposed to be friends with everyone. At the same time, I do remember that even those from whom I am alienated, for whatever reason, are human beings, in need (or at least in want) of encouragement.
Of course, one struggle that I had when walking from one church to the next was with the tension between focusing on giving (which is good) and self-pity over not receiving. “I don’t get much encouragement from people,” I thought. “Why should others’ experience be any different? It’s a cold world. We all must learn to deal with that!” I have to fight against this. The pastor at the first service talked about finding encouragement from God through spirituality: prayer and Bible reading. He said that Satan tries to discourage us by telling us that God does not love us, that we are not as good as so-and-so. Reading the Bible does not always make me feel good about myself and about God, and the pastor may have been acknowledging that there are helpful and unhelpful ways to read the Bible, spiritually-speaking, when he suggested that, rather than focusing on how bad the Bible characters were, we try to find what God is trying to teach us.
B. The pastor at the second service raised a very poignant question. He was talking about Tim Ferriss, a successful author and entrepreneur. According to the pastor, Ferriss used to be a misfit: he was the last picked in gym class for teams, he did not have too many friends, etc. Yet, Ferriss became successful later on. The pastor inquired what exactly moved Ferriss from being a misfit to finding his niche in life.
The myth that I often heard growing up was that nerds may be disliked now, but they will be successful when they grow up and make lots of money. “You better be nice to nerds,” one adage goes, “since you may end up working for one.” Meanwhile, I heard that the popular, attractive girls will grow up to be fat and ugly.
Well, life sometimes does work out that way, but it does not necessarily, or even often. Maybe the STEM nerds did go off to become successful engineers and made lots of money. But, just speaking for myself, I still feel like a misfit. And, by the way, the girls who were attractive in high school are still attractive as adults.
The pastor was presenting answers to his question. People move from being a misfit when they find God’s calling for their lives. They do so when they are supported and mentored by others. The pastor referred to two examples. First, since he is preaching a series on movies (as he astutely said, Christians should engage pop culture), he talked about the recent Wonder Woman movie: Diana was forbidden by her mother, a queen, to fight, but Diana’s aunt saw potential in Diana as a warrior, so the aunt trained Diana. During a battle, the aunt died to save Diana, and in her last breath she encouraged Diana to fight. I was crying (not in an overly obvious sense) when I heard this story, and I want to see the movie when it comes out on Netflix. Second, the pastor relayed a story from a woman in the church. The woman was not close to her mother and her sister when she was growing up, and she wanted female friends. Eventually, she found the friendship that she was seeking in a women’s group.
Nowadays, I try to cope with my feelings of being a “misfit” by focusing on my dissertation work. I do not always enjoy doing it, but, when I do it, I feel as if I am doing what I am supposed to do at this stage in my life.
That’s all for today.