Saturday, January 26, 2013

How Are You Using Your Words?

My friend Cathy is a runner. Last year she was competing in a race, and as usual, spectators were standing along the race course, erupting in cheers and applause as their friends and loved ones ran by. Some spectators held signs in their hands, and one in particular caught Cathy's eye. It read:



 Image of man with blank sign
  courtesy of stockimages/freedigitalphotos.net



Cathy said the guy with the sign had planted himself in a very helpful spot: "He was in the second half of the race, which is the harder part. There's a lot more to go, you're just sort of dying, and you can hear people panting and groaning."

The encouraging message made Cathy laugh, and she says it also put a spring back in her step. It had a positive effect on the other runners as well. According to Cathy, "The guy with the sign was smiling, he was enthusiastic and the runners noticed it. We were smiling and murmuring about his sign among ourselves, and it was very contagious, this feeling of humor and fun." 


I loved hearing about this! It's a great reminder that encouraging words have immense power, to lift our spirits and put a spring in our step.  And the best thing about encouraging words? 



They're free! They cost us absolutely nothing, except for a few moments of our time.  



But what happens when we withhold them? I saw the results firsthand at a retreat many years ago, during an activity called "Circles of Blessing". We were sitting in small groups with people we knew, and we were instructed to choose one person in our group. Then, one at at time, everyone else in the group was to verbally affirm that person in some way. When we were finished, we were directed to choose a second person in the group and repeat this process, and so on, until every person in the group had been verbally affirmed and encouraged.


Within my group, the first two people we focused on reacted very positively, with big smiles. Then we came to the third person. She was a sweet and kind woman who had dedicated her life to serving others selflessly, so it was very easy for us to affirm all of the great things we saw in her.  


But her reaction took me by surprise. As we spoke our words of affirmation, her eyes grew watery, her chin began quivering, and then she suddenly burst out crying. Through her tears, she explained that she didn't know how to handle receiving so much affirmation, because nobody had ever said nice things about her, to her. My heart broke for this woman, who was nearing retirement age. Because how many people had she been around, throughout the course of her life? And we were the first to speak words of affirmation directly to her?


Since then, I've made a conscious decision to be an encourager. When I see good things in other people, I proactively let them know I see these things. Because who knows if they've ever heard positive feedback in that particular area of their lives? Or at all? And beyond that, who knows what destructive words may have been carelessly hurled at them just that morning? Or earlier that week, month, or year? Or throughout their entire life? 


I want my words to make a difference in this world! I want my words to build up, not tear down!  


I want to be like the guy holding the sign in Cathy's race, encouraging exhausted runners in the grueling marathon of life to keep going, to "run with perseverance the race marked out for them." (Hebrews 12:1) 


Because this marathon of life that we're all running just isn't easy, not for any of us. Sooner or later, we all encounter steep mountains, dark valleys, or scorching deserts that we must slog our way up, down, or through. And during those seasons of slogging, of wearisome plodding as we battle fear, sadness, disappointment, discouragement, and whatever else is going on in our heads, it helps to encounter friends and random strangers who take a few moments to offer the gift of encouraging words. 


I've been the recipient of many such words over the past year. They've generally arrived at just the right moment, when I'm feeling discouraged and overwhelmed by the difficulty of the race that God has marked out for me. And I can attest firsthand that these words, and the prayers behind them, have been nothing less than uplifting, life giving, and strengthening to my heart and soul.


So... if you happen to be going through hard times right now, if the race God has marked out for you has you slogging through a scorching desert, and your head is spinning, and you're dying for some water, and you don't know when or if this crazy desert is going to end, and you're worried that maybe you took a wrong turn somewhere, and you don't think you have the strength to keep going, and you're thinking about falling into a sobbing heap on the ground and giving up because it's all so overwhelming... here's the race sign I'm holding up for YOU: 




Run, friend, run!
Keep going! 
You can do it!



Encouraging words have immense power!



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