1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
As the autumn progresses, we will predictably see and hear a multitude of geese making their way from Canada and the northern United States southward to warmer climates. Ornithologists call this “The Atlantic Flyway,” and they estimate more than 600,000 geese will make their way through these parts this autumn. These geese do not fly alone; they need one another to travel the way. And so there are certain habits which the geese teach each succeeding generation:[i]
- The geese fly in a V-formation, synchronizing their flapping. The V-shape makes the geese much more energy-efficient, with vortices of air created by each goose’s flapping giving some air-lift to the birds that follow and also lessening the drag for the birds behind. The V-formation also makes it easier for the geese to maintain visual contact with each other and communicate, which helps navigation and flock cohesion. Scientists estimate that the geese’s flying in V-formation enables them to fly “upwards” [sic] to 70% further than if they were flying alone… which they won’t do.
- The first goose in the V-formation faces the greatest resistance in wind. When the lead goose tires, it rotates out of the lead position and moves to the rear, where it is literally carried on the wing-draft of the geese that precede. This rotation happens continually whenever the lead goose tires, but before the lead goose is too tired to be a follower.
- The geese also communicate by sound – don’t we know it! – making a “honk” (if a male) or “hink” (if a female), each individual goose having its own recognizable voice. Geese have a vocabulary of two dozen or so different distinct sounds, used to maintain directions for the flight pattern, to encourage stray birds to maintain the correct speed and formation, to warn about predators, to address confusion, and to locate places for food and rest.
- And if a goose is disabled to continue in the air with the airborne group, called “the skein of geese,” that goose will land… but not alone. Typically two other geese will fall back to care for and companion the ailing goose.
This autumn, watch these majestic patterns of geese flying in V-formation in the air. I want to use this image of geese enabling one another both to travel the way and to enable one another to reach their journey’s end as a metaphor for encouragement, mutual encouragement. We need to be encouraged – we all do, you do. In our first lesson appointed for this evening, from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes, “encourage one another and build up each other…” The practice of encouragement is encouraged repeatedly in the Scriptures.[ii]
Encouragement is an amazing thing. The English word “encouragement” comes from the Old French, “corage,” which is the French word for “heart.” Encouragement is a balm to the heart. Encouragement will bind up the broken hearted, just as Jesus promises us. When Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” you do not necessarily have to share blood, sweat, and tears for others, at least not every day. But every day you can lay down your life for others by bowing before them. Acknowledge their dignity, their amazing worth, their wonderful work, the reality of their giftedness, the essence of their loveliness. This will change their day, and change their lives, and make an eternity of difference. Encouragement will convert someone’s fearful heart, or lonely heart, or a heart of stone into the new heart that God promises.[iii] Encouragement is how courage gets into our hearts. Encouragement produces courage; encouragement makes us strong, very strong. It is as simple and profound as that. Encouragement: you have the need and you have the power.
You need encouragement, particularly if you do some things very well, if you bring sustenance and delight to other people’s lives, and if you are dependable. If so, you will likely be taken for granted, but you will not be taken with gratitude. At least gratitude will probably not be expressed to you. Not often. It’s not because the people whose lives you touch aren’t dependent on you; nor that they are without gratitude for who you are and what you do. But in a kind of paradoxical way, the better you perform, and the more dependable you are, the less likely you will hear praise and gratitude… which would be so encouraging to you. Those who look to you and depend upon you probably have a subconscious sense that who you are and what you do simply emanates from you… and so you are left alone to do what you do so amazingly and predictably well. Surely you know you are wonderful? Surely you know how much you matter? Surely you know how grateful we are for you? Surely? But you actually don’t know this. You might have known this once, but you’ve long since forgotten it.
If people depend on you for something, you are not “down and out,” but rather “up and out,” and you can easily feel estranged all the same. Your need to be remembered, thanked, encouraged is great. And you’re probably not going to admit this. Unless you blow up or break down and lose your veneer, you’re not going to admit you need to be remembered, thanked, supported, encouraged.
Do you remember that scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye asks his wife of 25 years, Golde: “Do you love me?” He implores her again and again, “Do you love me?” There’s every reason he should know he is loved, Golde reminds him, but Tevye rather desperately needs to be reminded, or rather, he needs to be told explicitly that he is loved. And so for us. In the Brothers’ Rule of Life, we talk about our needing support and encouragement as our “daily bread.” Most of us have short-term memory loss whether we matter and are appreciated – encouraged! – especially in what we do well. I’m probably speaking about you.
We also need support and encouragement as daily bread because of the very personal ways in which we otherwise suffer alone. This is true, as we say in our Rule, especially at times of stress, disappointment, and weakness.[iv] When we fail, or when we feel ourselves a failure, we suffer three losses: estrangement from God, from other people, and from ourselves. It’s the latter – our relationship with our own self – that is the lynch pin in all our other relationships.
No matter how much we may belong to other people – in a marriage or partnership, in a monastic community, to professional colleagues or fellow volunteers, or to precious family members and friends – no matter our bonds to other people, the most important relationship we wake up to every morning is our relationship to our own self: whether we are on good speaking terms with our own self; whether we can love, honor, forgive, and enjoy our own selves. The degree to which we can love ourselves will set the bar for how we will relate to others and to God. We will love others the way we love ourselves, just as Jesus said.[v] We have a great need for the conversion of our existential condemnation and loneliness into a most splendid solitude. The conversion of loneliness into solitude. There’s a reason why we cannot do this alone.
All of us make mistakes, suffer failures, miss the mark, experience ourselves disappointing. This begins in our early childhood. We learn about our failures and inadequacies from others and, whether or not others’ judgment of us is accurate or helpful, we will probably believe it and even collude with it as we grow older. We are graded in life, first by others, then by ourselves. No matter how good we are, we always could have been better. If left to our own devices, our own mean judgments, we will almost inevitably score poorly. We could have been, should have been better, don’t we know. There’s no way out of this downward, internal spiral unless we are rescued by love. It’s otherwise hell, all the way to hell. We are secretly condemned and sentenced to a lifetime, an eternity of inadequacy, failure, and estrangement unless we are rescued by love: someone who will bequeath dignity, worth, recognition, and gratitude upon us, encouragement for us because of who were are and what we do. We simply cannot grasp this alone: that we are precious, and amazing, and of inestimable value unless this truth is mirrored into our being by another person.[vi] We need to give and receive support and encouragement for one another as “daily bread.”
Encouragement is a need we all have; encouragement is a power we all have. Unleash that power. Watch the airborne geese this fall as an inspiration for encouragement. You have within your heart an almost endless supply of encouragement for other people. Practice it! Even if you are running short on receiving encouragement, practice encouragement, and you will reap what you sow.[vii]
[i] Fascinating research gleaned from Science magazine: “Why Birds Fly in a V Formation,” by Patricia Waldron (January 15, 2014); Ornithological Science, Vol.13 Supplement, OSJ 2014; National Geographic: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/01/15/birds-that-fly-in-a-v-formation-use-an-amazing-trick/; and Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7483/full/nature12939.html?foxtrotcallback=true
[ii] For example: Deuteronomy 3.28; Acts of the Apostles 4.36, 14:22, 15:32, 16:40; Romans 1.12, 15:4; Ephesians 6.22; Philippians 2.1; Colossians 2.2, 4:8; 1 Thessalonians 3.2, 4:18, 5:11; 5:14; 2 Timothy 4.2; 1 Peter 5.12.
[iii] Ezekiel 36:26: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
[iv] From the SSJE Rule of Life, chapter 43: “Mutual Support and Encouragement.” You may read the Rule online at: https://www.ssje.org/2012/01/07/mutual-support-and-encouragement/
[v] Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27.
[vi] The sweet words of the Prophecy of Isaiah 43:4 – “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you….”
[vii] A riff on Galatians 6:7, and an allusion to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:29.
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