‘It is always much more difficult to sing when the audience has turned its back.’ (Calvin Miller)
Early in my career, I worked for an over-zealous manager who would sit at the front while I was speaking at events; looking impatient, rolling her hands and tapping her watch. Perhaps she was worrying, unnecessarily, whether I would keep to time. I imagine she thought she was being helpful. I learned then that a look of disapproval or distrust is sometimes all it takes to sap a person’s confidence or to ruin their performance. An Australian pop group reflected a similar feeling and impact in its half-pleading song lyric, ‘I can't do well when I think you're going to leave me, even though I try’. (Empire of the Sun)
What a stark contrast a word of encouragement can be. Some years later, I was invited to speak at a prestigious international conference. I had grown in confidence, yet there was something about this event that evoked all kinds of anxieties within me. As I sat alone in the VIP lounge beforehand, I could see my hand trembling uncontrollably as I tried hard to hold a hot drink. When I stepped nervously into the auditorium and onto its expansive, spot-lit stage, I could see smartly-dressed delegates being ushered into the room and handed very professional-looking folders as they looked to find a seat.
My legs felt like jelly, so I sat down on the steps beside the podium and took deep breaths to try to relax myself. At that moment, a tiny black woman walked directly up to me and smiled brightly. She announced enthusiastically that she has travelled all the way from the Solomon Islands to be here, and was surprised and delighted to read in the brochure that I too was a ‘follower of Jesus’. I thanked her warmly for introducing herself. Her face shone like an angel. ‘I will be sitting in the centre of the room’, she said, ‘and praying for you continually!’ My knees found strength. The speech went well.
When have you felt encouraged at work? How did affect your performance?
I watched at 9 miles as people jogged past looking hopeful, energetic and smiling. Further into the run, the picture looked quite different. Many looked tired, struggling to push onto the end. This was the Milton Keynes marathon this weekend. At 19 miles, I saw a small girl standing beside the track shouting and clapping at everyone who came past: ‘Well done! You’re doing brilliantly! Keep going!’ Pained faces turned to smiles. People who were walking, limping, mustered the strength to start running again. It was amazing to observe. The power of a child. The gift of encouragement.
It brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t running but it energised me too. Previously, I had been waiting for a friend, Adrian, to run past so that I could encourage him, catch a photo. Now I found myself clapping, cheering, shouting words of encouragement to everyone. To strangers. To people I have never seen and will never see again. The girl’s effect was infectious. Magical. I decided to stay until the end, to clap and cheer, to project belief and hope into tired minds and bodies. It felt like such a privilege. Exhausted runners breathed, ‘thank you’, gave a thumbs up and offered a weak smile.
This girl struck me as such an incredible life symbol. How to inject belief, hope, encouragement into people’s lives , especially people who feel at the end of themselves, of their situations, at a loss how to survive - never mind to succeed. I’m reminded of Paul’s words in the New Testament: ‘Let’s keep going in the race marked out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus – especially since there are people surrounding us and cheering us on.’ (my paraphrase). God, help us recognise the profound impact a simple word of encouragement can make: it could save a life, a dream, a deepest hope.
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