The first Sunday in Advent is associated with hope. The Bible readings focus on the prophesies of Jesus’ birth, on the coming of the Messiah, which were great sources of hope for the people of Israel for centuries as they waited and watched for God’s coming. But I’m not going to write about hope on this first Sunday of Advent. I’m going to write about its close relative, encouragement.
Hope has gotten a lot of air time during the pandemic and for good reason. We need to be reminded that as Christians, we actively place our hope in God, in the belief that because God is in the world and at work in our lives, with God’s help we will weather these difficult times. Drawing strength and hope through God’s love for all humanity, we persevere and work in whatever ways we can to bring about God’s kingdom of love on earth.
Encouragement gets less attention. Yet I wonder how we’d be fairing in our lives if we didn’t have people who encourage us. Encouragement from another person is often what allows us to find hope again, to find courage and faith when our own resources are depleted.
Did you know that encouragement is one of the charisms or spiritual gifts noted in the Bible? These are gifts conferred, not through study or effort, but through the Holy Spirit and are qualities we possess that last our whole lives. Everyone can have some measure of the gift of encouragement. Some people are truly gifted with this quality, and we recognize them because after being in their company for a while, we feel renewed and refreshed and ready to continue. A person practicing the spiritual gift of encouragement will use their faith to uplift others and urge them to greater confidence. They will build up those who are discouraged. They strengthen others with one-on-one encounters, their very presence, and their words.
I have this theory that if everyone practiced random acts of encouragement, some of the darkness we feel in the world would lift. We are trained by our culture to think in terms of our individual lives, to think about individual freedoms and liberties. But as Christians, we believe and recognize we are the Body of Christ. And there is that famous verse that the eye can’t make do without the hand and vice versa. With this as our belief, it makes sense that we are all strengthened when we give and share encouragement with each other.
Encouragement is like sharing a little bit of the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer, with someone who needs it. It’s like sharing your lunch with a hungry friend. It’s actively working to strengthen another member of the Body of Christ who may be flagging. People who freely give and offer encouragement are lights in our lives.
The great thing about spiritual gifts is that you don’t have to be blessed with every one of them to cultivate them. Encouragement is one that we can all cultivate, and it doesn’t take much. Recently my husband asked to write holiday cards with me before Thanksgiving. This is unheard of! He has never wanted to write cards before, so I jumped on his enthusiasm. We found a photo of two chairs on our patio covered in eight inches of snow from a few Christmases ago. We stuck copies of it on the cover of the cards and he wrote the following:
When this snow melts in spring, we expect to have you over to sit in these chairs on our patio.
It was such a simple phrase, but I recognized the encouragement it offered to those who received the card, a reminder to hold on during dark and cold times. Spring will come.
During Advent, as we wait and hope and watch, and as we refrain from some of the busier holiday traditions, why not look for ways you can share the gift of encouragement with others? It may be as simple as putting a bag of oranges on an elderly person’s doorstep or making this the year you write a card or letter to friends filled with a message of encouragement. One of the greatest ways we encourage others is to let them know they are not forgotten, they are not insignificant. We encourage each other when we show through our words and actions that we are all beloved, all cherished, all invaluable members of the Body of Christ and God needs each of us pulling together.