Peter J. Gomes is a professor at Harvard Divinity School and minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Nov. 5, 1997, p. 1001, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Perhaps in our public prayers we ought to make room for yet another category: “prayers of encouragement,” For it is our spiritual obligation to encourage one another.
Christians, alas, are not famous for encouraging one another. Sometimes the phrase "Christian love" has an unintended sense of irony about it. And the verse that reads "see how these Christians love one another" is often used as a rebuke to the patent lack of love and encouragement among Christians. There is an old story about Baptists and Methodists singing their hearts out on opposite corners of a downtown district. The Methodists are asking the great gospel question, "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?" while the Baptists, as if in reply, are singing one of their favorites, "No, Not One." Censure and competition, rebuke and self-righteousness --these far too often tell the story of our relationship with one another within the church.
As we make our way through the Book of Hebrews with its glittering and sometimes confusing images of sacrifices and great high priests and its extended metaphor of Jesus as that priest who makes all other priests unnecessary, the following verses come to us with a remarkable clarity and freshness: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
How might this consideration of stirring one another to love and good works operate in practical terms? When I was a boy, the longest stretch of the Sunday service was the pastoral prayer. The sermon was easier to listen to because it was just the minister going on and on. But the pastoral prayer was talking to God; therefore one had to pay attention. George A. Gordon, minister of Boston’s Old South Church a century ago, was asked if he could remember a certain historical fact. He could not, he said, "but it will come to me during the Long Prayer." And he was doing the praying. Today, in many places, the Long Prayer has gone the way of formalism in public worship, and has been replaced by concerns and celebrations."
Perhaps in our public prayers we ought to make room for yet another category: "prayers of encouragement." We would think of ways in which we can encourage our fellow believers to love and good works. We would think of ways in which we can be of assistance to the people we know and with whom we share the faith and the pew. This means making an assessment of people’s strengths and opportunities rather than of their weaknesses and needs. We would also be praying that they may be encouraged to do something for themselves, something which God enables them to perform to the mutual benefit of the faith and the community.
The second benefit of a word of encouragement is that it strengthens both the believer and the fellowship by supplying that positive, affirming force that is so often missing in the routine of life. To live for rewards is always to live for success, and when success eludes us, as it often does, so too does the reward. We may live "for" reward, but we live "by" encouragement, which is what we need when things go well, and especially when things don’t go well. The trick is that we cannot encourage ourselves: even in this self-help culture of ours, we cannot yet do that. We must be encouraged by someone else, and it is our spiritual obligation to encourage one another.
This definition of an effective New Testament church is short on doctrine and rules and long on fellowship and encouragement. It may be just what we need to hear as we see "the Day drawing near."