More fist bumps for Jesus

by Kristin on November 18, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Monica’s Dad

I’m not a big sports fan, so I admit, when I first caught wind of this study I rolled my eyes: The more teammates do fist-bumps, high-fives and chest bumps, the more likely they are to win.

But then I pulled the concept apart from sports and became very intrigued. The University of California, Berkely study points to the power of physical touch in communicating cooperation and trust:

The more time NBA players spend touching each other ⎯ slapping backs, bumping chests and exchanging high fives ⎯ the more successful they are, both as individuals and as a team, the research reveals.

I certainly won’t argue with that assessment—that cooperation and trust helps us perform—but it also occurred to me that something else is at play: the power of encouragement.

Encouragement: more than “a nice thing”

I’ve been thinking a lot about encouragement lately, thanks to a teaching series the pastors at my church have been focusing on this fall. The premise of the teaching series is that building one another up through encouragement and offering grace is one of the most counter-cultural, transformative ways we can chose to live.

As soon as the pastors started teaching about encouragement, it made sense to me, but I can’t say I immediately embraced the concept. I had a bit of that “of course encouragement is nice but it isn’t critical” mindset. (Clearly “words of affirmation” is not one of my main Love Languages.)

But then this past Sunday, Pastor Ron talked about all of the very familiar problems the church of Corinth was having when Paul was writing his second letter to them. Does Paul tell them to cut it out—to stop being such bad people who are always doing the wrong things? No, he begins his letter by charging them with a single task: to encourage each other.

In II Corinthians 1:3-7 Paul uses a form of the word “encourage” NINE times. From a writer’s perspective, it’s almost a bit much, but clearly Paul has a point he is determined to get across: God encourages us, which allows us to encourage others. That encouraging of others is, in fact, the whole point. What do you think of that? We aren’t encouraged just so we can feel good and have a better day—we actually have a bigger purpose, a responsibility to others.

A glimpse of how it really works

I’ve been mulling that over ever since I left church on Sunday, trying it out here and there in my own life, and observing how those around me (my kids included) encourage others. It was starting to get through to me in a powerful way. I was beginning to see the potential, how encouragement can make a huge difference in our lives, particularly because of its ripple effect power.

Then I got an email that pulled it all together in the most crystal clear, yet everyday way. The email was from a woman who reads my blog and is a connection via Twitter. Before this week, we’ve only interacted occasionally on Twitter, and never via email, yet she felt compelled to email me to say “thanks.” I had recently tweeted a few random parenting-focused thoughts that spoke to her, and I had also shown concern, via Twitter, about her health.

None of the tweets was a big deal—I didn’t think twice about them—but she wrote in her email, “I think it’s little acts of kindness like that which are really important.” (Of course, I’m including this here with her permission.) Regarding parenting, she wrote “I’m thankful for the reminders of what I’m working towards. It helps when life feels hopeless or out of control in the parenting world.”

It was a simple email—there was nothing gushing about it—but for some reason it really blew me away. Part of it, I think, was that she followed her gut and took the time to say “thanks” to someone who had encouraged her in a small but meaningful way. And the other part of it is how immensely encouraging that was to me. It went so far beyond politeness and courtesy, and fed this other place where we’re always half wondering if anything we do makes a difference to anyone.

Now I have a vision for how we all might be encouraging one another, even when we have no idea that it’s happening, and it feels huge. It feels like we’re all stepping toward each other, big smiles on our faces, offering fist bumps and high fives. Those positive touch points then give us the fuel we need to turn around be do more, be better, and “win” more—a winning that’s all about more love, not points. I have no doubt this is what Jesus wants for us.

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  • ed cyzewski

    This is particularly hilarious because our pastor’s trademark, and I mean trademark, is that he gives out high fives all of the time. Man, if anyone ever plays our church in disc golf, we’re going to crush them with our secret high-five weapon…

    I love this post. Sometimes in church we get focused on what we’re doing, where we’re serving, or on what isn’t happening when we’re surrounded by incredible people who need encouragement. And many are so deserving of encouragement. I love this post and want you to know that you’re a great blogger. I’d totally give you a lame fist bump if I could.

  • Tanya

    Thanks for another great post, Kristin!

    I suspect most of us who follow your blog regularly think, “What a thoughtful, insightful, and wise person Kristin is–and what a wonderful gift that she so boldly and eloquently shares that with the world!” (Or some variation of that.) But we don’t actually say it as often as we think it; if I said something every time you had a good post, I think I’d look like a sychophant.

    Similarly, we probably don’t do enough affirming or thanking so many people in our day-to-day activities, but doing so would make such a difference.

    I’m a pastor in a small English village, and occasionally I lead religious assemblies at the local primary school. On Wednesday, I was talking about how “light” is an important symbol in every major religion we could name. After sharing examples from a few other religious traditions, I said, “Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world.’ What do you think he meant by that?” And the kids put up their hands and offered answers. One little boy put up his hand and timidly offered, “I think he meant that we’re all like kings and princes and rulers of the world.” In that moment, I couldn’t think quickly enough about how to affirm what he was saying–and I said, “Hmm. I do think he wanted us to know that we have to care for the world, like kings and princes should, but maybe not that we’re the RULERS of the world.” And I moved on to the next hand.

    I glanced back at him and noticed that he looked a bit abashed, as though he wished he hadn’t said anything–everyone else, it seemed, was getting obvious affirmation for what they had said. Some kids always have an answer, but this little guy hadn’t spoken up before. I so WISHED I could go back to that moment and add, “But I can tell that you were really thinking about my question, and I want to congratulate you for being brave enough to share what you were thinking.” Or find a way to show that what he had said was a helpful way of interpreting Jesus’ words. It would have been a little thing, but it also could have changed the entire tenor of that boy’s experience in that moment.

    I’ve never really thought about the fact that we may have a *responsibility* to encourage one another. . . but I think that’s right. Life is often difficult and stressful; the relationships that matter most to us are frequently complicated and messy. But they certainly feel easier and more manageable when there’s an atmosphere of encouragement undergirding them. Instead of worrying that too much praise or encouragement might wind up being shallow or empty, maybe adopting the mindset that regular, sincere encouragement is the bedrock of thriving relationships could be transformational.

    Thanks, Kristin; your blog impacts my thinking and my day in really important ways.

  • Ron Simkins

    As they say on the news, “in the interest of full disclosure” I am the pastor Kristin refers to in this blog. And, in the interest of honesty and confession, she takes the idea to a wonderfully unique place that I wish I had thought of first. What an insightful writer! Thanks Kristin.

  • Kristin T.

    ed, are you sure your town doesn’t have a church disc golf league? Or maybe you can start one? :) I think you’re exactly right about how easily we become focused on certain aspects of what we think it means to be a Christian while we completely overlook others. Sometimes it seems we’re most likely to overlook the simple things—the small acts that in turn generate so much more good. So, thanks for taking the time to encourage me—there’s nothing at all lame about your virtual fist bump. :)

    Tanya, I always appreciate your insightful thoughts and personal stories. This is especially right on, I think: “Instead of worrying that too much praise or encouragement might wind up being shallow or empty, maybe adopting the mindset that regular, sincere encouragement is the bedrock of thriving relationships could be transformational.” The situation you describe with the little boy is tough, though—not many people would be able to naturally affirm and encourage him on the spot in an honest, still-instructive way. It seems like empty encouragement could become almost as problematic as no encouragement, doesn’t it? Which means a person who is good at finding that meaningful balance has a real gift, that we should study and learn from. Hmmm…

    Ron, thank you! How wonderful that we can trade inspirations back and forth, from your teachings to my blog posts. I’m thankful to be a part of a church community that stretches me and helps me grow.

  • V.V. Denman

    Such a nice reminder. Sometimes the little things make more of an impact that the big things. Have a great week!

  • Neosoulist

    Kristin, I am hopefully back to routinely reading your blog :). This was a great post to return to.

    Being an athlete I can’t help but think about the complexities in what is means to encourage. There is the fist bump after a great play, or in bball the corporate celebration when you have just gone on a 15 – 2 scoring run and forced the the other team to call a timeout. But there is also the “come on man!”, “you gotta stay with him” and other words that are usually accompanied by a hand clap or slap on the butt. The feeling is both supportive and challenging. When I go up to a teammate clap his, pull him close and say, ” you have to make better passes”. I am telling him that I know that he is a better player than he is showing. We have to do this in our faith too. From what I observe we struggle at both the support and challenge parts of encouragement.

    As you mentioned encouragement is a responsibility in relationships. Encouragement is what grows people towards an end, in Christianity it is closer to God, in sports it is being a better player. If we truly care about those around us we must encourage.

    Thinking about the sports example, I also see there is often structure that creates encouragement as well as spontaneous encouragement. Look at any sports team. Before the game begins there are often rituals that occur. Swaying in a circle, jumping up and down, dancing (i.e. the All Blacks – a rugby team in New Zealand), while these may seem silly or odd bursts of adrenaline, they are also a corporate liturgical act of encouragement. These rituals encourage the athletes by reminding them that we are all in this together. I think if Sunday morning (or whenever a congregation gathered) was a time not only to “hear the word” and worship through music, but a time where the liturgy (rituals that have a “telos” or intended result) of the service was one that encouraged individuals and the body, we would be a better people.

    P.S. I ended up liking my thought process so, I might re-post my comment with a shout-out to your blog :)

  • Kristin T.

    V.V. Denman, yes, here’s to the little things! Sometimes I think we unnecessarily stress ourselves out trying to save the world in big ways, when it’s the little things that can have a big ripple-effect. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

    Neosoulist, welcome back! It’s great to see you here. I’m not at all surprised this post appeals to you, and I’m thrilled to have an athlete’s perspective. I especially find your take on the two different types of encouragement—support and challenge—really interesting, as well as the whole idea about how corporate rituals feed into all of this. Great stuff to be mulling over—I do hope you’ll write your own post on the subject! “We are all in this together,” indeed!

  • The Modern Gal

    My chosen career is a very frustrating one, one that most Americans enjoy lashing out at or dismissing. I frequently think about giving it up because it’s so frustrating to do work that no one seems to appreciate. But every so often I’ll get an encouraging note or response that helps me power through really long, difficult weeks.

    That’s just an example, but it can be that way with life too. Encouragement is a good thing, and you never know when someone might really, really, really need just a little bit of it to keep powering through.

  • The Modern Gal

    I should also mention that I find a lot of encouragement in your writing — encouragement to have faith in others and fight for my beliefs and for others who are treated as “less than” by our society.