A friend returned from a mission trip to Central America with a renewed sense of excitement about doing God's work. "I went down there to help other people," she said, "but I didn't expect that they would help me. I thought I had something to give, but what I got back was so much more."
Anyone who has welcomed back a person from a mission trip has heard this common sentiment. The person goes with the intent to give and is surprised to experience a sense of receiving even more. I can almost hear the gentle scolding in Jesus' voice: "Did I not tell you, ‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.' (Luke 6:38) Why then are you surprised that this is true?"
Why, indeed. Sometimes in our journey of discipleship we are embarrassed to discover the truth of the scriptures long after we professed to believe them. For me, one of those revelations is the truth that the Body of Christ builds itself from the inside.
I have been on a mission trip, though my mission field is closer to home. All who pick up the cross to follow Jesus are ministers on a mission in some way. In recent years, I have been deployed to the fair city of Oxford. Here I can testify to receiving a generous measure of goodness, shaken down and overflowing into my lap. Every member of my family has been challenged by hardship in some way and has benefitted from the friendships we have found here. The beauty of church work is that the Holy Spirit enables us to build up one another, so that we mutually benefit in service, worship, and giving. If this is not the case, something is wrong, and we should re-evaluate what is happening.
The apostle Paul had this same experience in his ministry. In his letter to the Romans, the salutation includes thanks to God for his fellow workers in Rome, and the assurance that "without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers." He expressed an aching to see them, not only for their sake, but for his. "For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you - or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine" (Romans 1:11-12). Mutually encouraged, both yours and mine, did you get that?
When we join the church, we pledge to support it with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Encouragement is not listed there, but is implicit in each of these things. We encourage one another by our prayers, our presence. Encouragement is something we give without giving away; that is, we give, but never run out, and only seem to receive a portion back, pressed down and overflowing.
The next time you are in Sunday morning worship, look around. Consider how many people there have helped you along the way. You would be surprised how many people come with private injuries and anxieties that need your encouragement. You would be surprised how many people have already found encouragement in something you said or did, or even something that happened to you, that affected them deeply. Your pastor already knows this, because another church member has already told him or her confidentially.
The gift of encouragement is something you can offer that will never be wasted or misused. It does not even cost you anything, and will actually benefit you in some way, as experience teaches us.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the wonderful work of the Body of Christ.
Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.