I recently had an opportunity to catch up with an old friend whom I see far too infrequently these days. Cliff Barrows served for 64 years as Billy Graham's song leader and right-hand man in more than 180 countries.
No one has inspired more people to sing God's praises than Cliff, and no one has led so many hundreds of thousands of people in some of the greatest musical worship experiences in the last century. Now 86 years of age with a voice as resonant as ever, Cliff's ability to lead people in worship is as sharp as it has been for decades. His hearing and eyesight are failing, but his heart is strong.
While I've known Cliff personally for almost 40 years, I never asked him how he got started in leading people in worship until this recent visit. "It was my aunt," he replied. She instilled a love of singing hymns in me and gave me the first opportunity to lead the singing in a church service when I was 12 years of age!"
"How did it go?" I asked. Cliff thought it went fine, until his dad called him over and said, "Son, let me give you some advice. If you want people to sing, you need to encourage them. You should say, 'That was very good. Now let's see if we can do even better.'" Cliff added, "Those words have never left me. People respond to encouragement."
How true. Notice the core of the word "encouragement" is "cour" and that is French for "heart," which of course is the root of "courage." So to encourage is to put heart into people, to impart courage to them to try, to improve, to risk, to press on.
There are many ways to do this. You can pat someone on the head, put an arm around a shoulder, slap a back, wipe a tear-stained cheek, whisper a word in their ear, or administer a kick where appropriate!
One of my favorite stories is about the Boston Marathon. One year this annual event was in danger of being canceled because of race riots in the streets. But wise heads suggested the race should go on and could serve to bring people together. It certainly did for one young runner.
Arriving at "Heartbreak Hill," a particularly gruesome obstacle, as he was at the point of exhaustion, he had to cope with the hoots and hollers of spectators who themselves had little sympathy for and less knowledge of what he was going through.
An older man slightly ahead of him heard the commotion, turned round, ran back to him, and put his arm around his shoulder. He told him to lock step with him, and said, "Come on, young man, we'll do this together. You can do it." And "do it together" they did. That's putting courage into a person! By the way, the young man was white, and the older man was black!
There is much to discourage people today: Loss of jobs, uncertainty about health care, declining value of housing, banks failing, and investments losing ground, not to mention troubling events in world affairs. But it is in times like this that Christians become encouragers! How — you may ask?
Well, for a start, we should be able to speak from our own experience of a faith walk through the valleys of life into the situations in which people find themselves. As Paul told the Thessalonians, "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing" (1 Thess. 5:11).
We at Telling the Truth often remind ourselves of the Apostle's words: "Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).
That is why we study and teach, preach and broadcast, and use all manner of technical means to bring biblical words of comfort and encouragement to people around the world, so that those who are without hope may find hope in the One who is in control, and so that those who know Him will not lose heart.
Of course, we couldn't continue the race set before us if we didn't have our own encouragers come up alongside us, throw their arms around us, and offer to run in lockstep with us. Encouragement helps us to keep going, just as it did for that young man on Heartbreak Hill.
The race is long, but thanks to fellow runners, we run with perseverance and joy in doing the work that God has set out for us.