Sons and Daughters of Encouragement

Jess, Tom, and Lois

Barnabas: Son of Encouragement

Acts 4:36; 9:27; 15:36-39

You have just moved into a new community or are beginning to attend a new church. You are the stranger in the midst of others who have know each other for years. Your loneliness sometimes feels like a sharp pain that slices through your midsection. At other times you might feel like a social nerd in the presence of a room overflowing with social butterflies.

Some people have such an extrovert personality that they enter into new situations and new relationships with the tenacity and zeal of a bulldog or the skill and finesse of a ballerina. Others hang in the shadows and hope for someone else to make the first move, to rescue them from their loneliness. But most of us are somewhere in between those two extremes. We too want, and even look for someone who will be our lead blocker, our advance scout, our “son or daughter of encouragement” who will help us enter into the new community smoothly.

Barnabas, whose name means “Son of Encouragement,” was never the leading protagonist in the gospel story. He was not the “Star of the Show” or the one who gained fame, notoriety and recognition, but if it had not been for him, perhaps an infamous man named Saul would never have been received by the fledgling church which he had tried fiercely to destroy.

After Saul’s Damascus Road encounter with the One he had persecuted so righteously, Barnabas came to Saul whose name became Paul, took him into his welcoming arms and introduced him to his friends, the first apostles of our Lord Jesus.
Jess, Tom and Lois were my guides into their respective congregations in Volga, SD, Endicott, WA and Everson, WA. Each took me by the hand and we drove through the cornfields of South Dakota, the wheat and barley fields of the Palouse in Southeast Washington and the country roads of Whatcom County in Northwest Washington. They showed me, as their new pastor, where people lived and introduced me to them. They shared the histories of people, church and locality. They learned my history and got to know me.

Jess was the oldest of the three and, in spite of health challenges, he weekly helped me get to know people. Tom was the busiest with many responsibilities in the community and at his work and in the church and yet he became my “Father figure” and was always present to give me a helping hand. Lois was the most intuitive and one of the best listeners I had ever known. She was willing and able to ask important, penetrating questions that gave me the freedom to share myself deeply.

The Apostle Paul spoke of his spiritual son Timothy by saying, “I have no one like him…” (Philippians 2:20). I say the same of Lois. On numerous occasions during Sunday morning worship, I watched Lois leave the pew where she was comfortably sitting and locate herself next to a new visitor. This “Daughter of Encouragement” was always vigilant and available.

But something has happened since I left my last parish (Remember this was written while in Mexico in 2008-2009). In two congregations, both in Mexico, but I believe it would be no different in the United States (as I type this in 2018, I have found it to be true also in the U.S.), I have not had the personal guide to relationships, the “personal letter of reference” that has opened up new and inviting relationships. I have often said that people are not looking for friendly churches, but rather friends. The lack of friendliness will instantly drive visitors away, but friendliness alone will not keep new people consistently connected to a church. Friendships will!

Why is it that pastors are often given the privilege of having a Barnabas, a Son or a Daughter of Encouragement, who will help introduce the new pastor to others, but lay people, new visitors are expected to find their own way through the tangled web of congregational relationships? Why is it that established churches often think (or at least act) as if worship is the only thing for which people are searching?

People long for, are often starving for mutual, encouraging relationships and one would hope that people in the church could be the oasis for those life-giving friendships.

Blessed are the Ordinary for in Them I Have Seen God Chapter Two

Frank and Betza

Rahab: Joshua 2

(This is the second chapter of a book that I started while in Mexico in 2008 and 09, but never finished.)

Frank and Betza are well known, that is, they are well known in their little puebla of Aputzio de Juarez. Of course, if you travel twenty or thirty miles on the tope (Spanish for speed bump, pronounced toe-pay. Some of the topes I am sure are designed for one purpose only: to destroy car axles, thereby giving some backyard mechanic more work.) strewn backroads of the Mexican state of Michoacan, no one will probably have ever heard of them. Traveling a little further, maybe no one has even heard of Aputzio de Juarez.

Frank and Betza are definitely ordinary folk, living in the mountains of Michoacan. They are well known locally and in Frank’s home town of Zitacuarro, but they have no fame beyond those borders. Yet, I count this simple couple as one of the most grace-filled, hospitable couples I have ever met, but before I tell you their story, let me tell you another person’s story.

The oldest occupation in the world claimed a woman named Rahab, who lived over 3,300 years ago in the lower Jordan River town of Jericho, not far from the Dead Sea. If it had only been for her profession, Rahab would only have been known by her “clients” and by the gossiping wags of dusty Jericho, but Rehab is known, not for her profession, but for her hospitality and ultimately her ancestry.

She received into her home two spies from the invading Israelite “nation.” Upon receiving them and protecting them, she, in turn, received their promise of protection when Yahweh, the God of Israel, would give the invaders the land. A prostitute who offered her home as protection for foreigners, and even enemies, became part of the long line of progeny of King David of Israel and King Solomon and then years later the Servant-King Jesus. Rahab is in the “Faith Hall of Fame, (Hebrews chapter eleven in the New Testament), for a faith-filled act of hospitality.

Now back to Frank and Betza. They are both in my Faith Hall of Fame because of their lives of grace and hospitality. Speaking very limited English, they have consistently received non-Spanish speaking folk from the North and made them feel as family members. Having so little by American standards, they gave what they had and added to it all the love of their hearts, thus filling to the brim my sense of welcome.

On one of those visits to Aputzio de Juarez and Frank and Betza’s welcoming embrace, my eldest son Andrew accompanied me and another member of the congregation of which I was a pastor in Everson, Washington. When we left our “home away from home” I knew that Andrew had been touched by the warmth and hospitality of Frank and family, but I did not realize how deeply felt was the relationship for Andres, as he is called in Spanish.

Lately Andrew has experienced a great loss in his life and he commented, “I had never experienced loss before, except once.” My mind raced through his life wondering when he had experienced loss. It was when he left Aputzio, the family of welcome and love.

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35) Rahab and Frank and Betza are models for me of such welcoming embrace.

Blessed are the Ordinary Chapter One

blessed are the ordinary for in them i see
god

stan jacobson

(This is the first chapter of a book that I started while in Mexico in 2008 and 09, but never finished.)

Helen Susan Taittonen Jacobson

I Samuel 1: 28 Hannah

Among the ordinary Helen reigns supreme: quiet, unassuming and even timid. There was nothing about her physical appearance or personality or worldly achievements that would mark her as noteworthy or recognizable. Her eight years of public education in Northern Minnesota definitely was not significant on a resume. Helen’s friendships were limited as she perhaps lived much of her life, after moving with husband and children to the Evergreen State of Washington, with a heart aching for her relatives in her far-away home state. Sickness and near blindness stalked her life until the day she died on an operating table with only her husband in the waiting room.

And yet I saw and experienced the living God in her daily life and in her commitment to prayer. Helen was my mother, and she was the one who taught me to pray and to come to Jesus on my knees as my Savior and Friend.

My mother and father, Nestor, were in their middle forties when I was conceived as “a mistake.” A few years before she died, she told me that after I was conceived she was ashamed and hid from the public eye. My mom felt she was too old to have a child. She must have forgotten her pedigree in the long-line of elderly women in the Scriptures who conceived in their “golden years.”

Yet something happened. God gave my mother a gift, a gift that subsequently has become significant to me, her son by “mistake.” God’s word came to her. God “spoke” to my mother in her pregnancy and she was given the assurance that this child, kicking and punching in her womb, was to be a child of God, used as a servant of God in this world.

Hannah, in some ways, is my mother’s counter-part in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hannah’s life story was different from my mother who was a second-generation child of immigrant parents from Finland, but their source of strength was the same Rock from which we are all made. Hannah, according to the writer of I Samuel was barren and the object of scorn by the second, “successful” wife of her husband Elkanah. This ordinary woman, with a heart-aching with desire to be a mother, did what women (and men also) of faith have always done: she prayed…and prayed…and prayed. Then she too received the promise of the Lord through the priest Eli. When Hannah delivered her first-born son, she presented him to the LORD with these simple words which convey great depth of faith and a mother’s heart of passionate desire for her child: “Therefore I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD,” (I Samuel 1:28) and thus Samuel, the prophet, was placed into the hands of God by his loving, praying, faith-filled mother.

It is an ordinary act and yet it is a mountain-moving, faith-filled act for a mother to “lend” her child to the Lord. Mothers want to hold their darlings tight. Cuddling and comforting, nursing and caring are all the heart actions of a loving mother, but “lending…to the LORD; as long as he lives” is an extra-ordinary act of faith.

Hannah modeled such faith and so did my mother, Helen Susan Taittonen Jacobson. My earliest memories include those of kneeling beside my bed with my mother as we shared with the Lord our hearts and the needs of others.

Helen was not a theologian. Though she read her well-used Bible daily, she did not have a trained, academic understanding of “Biblical criticism” or scholarship. She never preached a sermon; she lived them. She never thought of “giving her testimony” to anyone. She lived that also. Yet, I remember returning from worship one Sunday and Mom gave her critique of the sermon, something I remember her doing only this one time. She said, “Pastor preached today but he did not use the name Jesus once!” A sermon was to be centered in Jesus for my mother, centered in the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus was to be “lifted up” and a sermon without Jesus was no sermon at all for her.

Helen was my mother. She taught me to pray as she modeled it daily with me. She died when I was about twenty-three years old, but decades later I sat beside her gravesite on a hill over-looking the Kelso-Longview, Washington area. I do not come from a religious tradition that believes the dead pray for us, but as I sat on the grass I “realized,” I “sensed,” I felt” the timeless, efficacious prayers that my ordinary mother prayed decades before but in God’s sight are timeless and ever before his throne.

The ordinary often are the quiet people of faith and prayer, but I picture Jesus, with a smile brimming across his face and his arms wide open as Helen Susan Taittonen Jacobson and Hannah of the Hebrew Scriptures lean into his love and grace.