I have a memory of my husband, Todd that I’ll always treasure. We were attending the wedding of one of his co-workers on the campus of a retirement community where Todd served as a physician. The grounds were beautiful, canopied in oak trees, and the day was warm and sunny. As we were headed to the large lawn where the wedding was to be held, we passed the unit that housed many of the patients with Alzheimer’s disease. A bell was going off, and we noticed a woman clothed in a pink bathrobe and slippers walking away from the building and down the perimeter road, her long gray braid swinging down her back to her waist. Even stooped over, she walked with purpose away from the clanging bell. Todd said, “Oh it’s Ruth; she’s gotten out again. I need to go get her. Just wait here.”
Now, in my mind, what would happen next looked like this: Todd would walk over and take her by the elbow, and explain that she needed to come back with him. She would be confused, maybe agitated, and he would soothingly convince her to come with him, and they would turn, Todd leading her into the building.
What really happened was this: Todd walked up beside her and took her hand and kept walking beside her. I saw them smiling and talking, and Todd just walked along next to her, hand in hand under the dappled light shining through the oaks, until they were both out of sight.
He never turned her around. They walked and talked until he had taken her all the way around the perimeter road which naturally returned to the building where the nurses (and I) were anxiously awaiting her return.
Why is this memory so vivid and so precious to me? It is precious because it says so much about my husband, who is the kindest person I know. It is vivid to me because it paints a picture in my mind of what it is to be an encourager. Specifically, this…
We join people on their “path.” What a different picture this would have been if Todd had been more “direct.” He could have directly turned Ruth around and taken the short path back to where she belonged. He saw, though, a woman taking a moment to enjoy a piece of normal life – a walk under the oaks on a beautiful day, surrounded by sunlight and birdsong – instead of buzzing fluorescent lights, wheelchairs and weird smells. And so, Todd joined her…and held her hand. They took the long way.
Joining people where they are has another name – compassion. Meaning literally to feel with, compassion takes energy and effort. It is not just a spontaneous thing that washes over us; it is something that requires training and habits. Over and over again in the gospels, we see Jesus responding in compassion – to the sick, the lost, the sinful, the grieving. He is our example of what it is to be compassionate. Jesus acted with compassion, not just when he was well-fed and well-rested—but when he was exhausted. Jesus’ march towards the cross was punctuated by acts that encouraged, whether it was by a miracle, or simply a well-timed word. And he commands us to do the same in Luke 6:36: You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.
We take the time it takes. I don’t remember precisely, but I’m pretty sure this scenario cost us some promptness to the wedding. I am a clock-watcher. Efficiency and multi-tasking are important to me. (There’s a reason I’ve gotten speeding tickets.) To be an encourager, we need to slow down, and take whatever time is required. Hasn’t God done that very same thing, and more, for us? If we look at the scope of history, we see God in loving pursuit of his children – children who repeatedly wander from him or reject him. Our patience with others will never match God’s patience with us, but we are certainly transformed by trying.
We are blessed in the blessing. If Todd had returned and then complained about Ruth’s escape, or how long these things take, etc., this whole scenario wouldn’t be a sweet memory. Instead, when he came back, he told me what they had talked about when they walked the perimeter road together – what a remarkable woman Ruth had been in her younger days, and what a privilege it is to care for those that the world often forgets. Todd blessed Ruth by taking the longer route with her, and he blessed her with his time, unhurried and “present.” In turn, God blessed Todd with a glimpse into His own heart for his children, inviting Todd into the sacredness of encouraging another human being.
Pastor Tim Keller was once asked what he thought was the most important evidence of growth as a Christian disciple. He gave a one-word answer: gentleness. Gentleness is the mark of a disciple’s growth…. I don’t remember his explanation for this answer, but the answer itself has stayed with me. Maybe it is because I am personally convicted by it. Maybe it is because all encouragement of others in the name of Christ, requires it.
Galatians 5:22 (NLT) says, When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. To join another human being on their schedule and in their circumstances – and to prayerfully take the time it takes to encourage them – is Holy Spirit work indeed. All of the theology and apologetics and doctrine that we learn intersect as we attempt to “be Jesus” to another person in want of kindness, material help, or a Savior. Todd exemplified that for me that day under the oaks. His example pointed to Jesus, who took the “long way” to save me.