“I love you.”
He says it slowly, the way he says everything, but lifting the word you, as if in emphasis. It’s not enough just to fling the words into the air above her head and walk away. He knows this. Purposefulness has been a recent goal. So instead, Adam bends his lean frame toward the chair where his sister sits absorbed, her pen bobbing restlessly over her journal, and he looks earnestly at her face.
“I love you.”
“What, Adam JONes?” She says, because she expresses love by acknowledging names, especially affectionate nicknames.
So he leans a little closer this time, looking into her eyes. “I love you.”
“Oh, thank you,” she says, standing up, laying her ragged journal and a sherbet-colored pen behind her in the chair. “Can you give me a hug with two arms, please?” Adam finds hugs uncomfortable, and unless we remind him to use both of his arms, his hugs look more like significant leans.
Adam moves closer to Riley, draping his long, gawky arms about her shoulders, and then reaches up and flicks one of her ears lightly with his fingers. Ear flicking is actually the most genuine sign of Adam’s affection; it has been for a long time. But since the gesture is not a widely recognized expression, we still insist on hugs. After all, the measurable strength of our communication rests in its meaningfulness to other people.
For a moment, I gather up the sight of them together, brother now slightly taller than sister; his broad, angular frame next to her stunning softness.
Hug carefully and deliberately administered, Adam walks wide-strided to his schedule on the refrigerator and checks off a box labeled, encourage someone. And I smile.
Maybe it seems silly, the notion of adding encouragement to a “to do” list, but I’ve found that rarely any of my own goals, spiritual or otherwise, happen without intentionality behind them, particularly if they stretch me. In my own planner, I often write, “who will you encourage today,” and not as some hypothetical ideal but as a concrete question demanding an answer. God has His ways of drawing my attention to the things that matter more than say, how many weeks it takes before I finally get around to scrubbing the kitchen floor (and it does take weeks). On my war room wall, one of the prayers I have scrawled for my family is a simple plea that He’ll make us better encouragers, because so He told us to be, and not once in a while but daily (Hebrews 3:13).
So while I’m teaching Adam to clean the bathroom and cook dinner and make his bed, I’m also trying to teach this son of mine who struggles hard with words to be an encourager. And sometimes the hardest part of learning anything is finding a place to start.
The first time he saw those words—encourage someone—on his list, he didn’t even know what the word encourage means. I heard him in the kitchen reading the words, first the objective and then the verse below, that low, serious voice of his rumbling. …as long as it is called Today. En-cour-age one another daily as long as…en-COUR-age someone. He stood there a long time, one long foot drawn up against his knee, leaning one forearm against the refrigerator. I didn’t expect him to understand, really, but I do believe God’s Spirit moves through His Word with Power, and I don’t believe that’s dependent at all on our far too-limited understanding.
Adam chose Riley as his someone that day. Of all of us, Riley usually best understands her brother’s bewilderment. She knows what it’s like not to speak the same language as most everyone else. So that first day, he found her, positioned himself right in front of her and just said, “en-COUR-age someone.” Teach me.
Being slightly more understanding of the objective, Riley said, “Okay, Adam. Who are you going to encourage today? Me or Mom?” Presently, we were his only visible options.
“Encourage,” Adam repeated, which was his way of saying, “What the heck does that even mean?”
Slow to catch on, Riley reiterated his options. “Yes, will you encourage me or Mom?” She never assumes another person understands less than she does.
He reached up to flick her ear with his fingers and said nothing.
“Adam. Are you going to encourage Riley or Mom? Riley or Mom?” Clearly she thought understanding me to be a more significant issue for him than understanding the word encourage, which made me smile. Personal pronouns were the last hurdle for Riley when she learned to speak.
Adam smiled and relented. “Mom.” After this initial exchange, he had concluded that perhaps I would be more relible help.
Catching the fleeting surprise on Riley’s face, I explained, “He doesn’t understand the word encourage.”
“Oh,” she said, turning back to her brother. “Encourage is like when you say something nice to someone else. Something that makes them feel good.” Ever a student of the rest of us, she randomly lifts and flattens her hand in the air as she speaks. The emphasis doesn’t quite match, but it suits her.
Far greater in purpose than a mere compliment, encouragement is the process of filling someone with courage, confidence, or—and the dictionary even includes this last word–spirit. God quite literally gives us eternal encouragement when He gifts us His own indwelling spirit. To encourage is really to practice being a bit more like God. In its maturity, encouragement isn’t limited to verbal contributions but actually encompasses far more. As scripture teaches, to encourage is really to add strength to another’s arms (sometimes by holding those arms up myself-Exodus 17:12), to spur each other on (Hebrews 10:24), to add fuel to the embers. But compliments certainly work as a place to start, and, for Riley, the right place.
That day, Adam paused, considering, and then turned to me. “Encourage,” he said. Riley’s explanation had not been helpful, but for someone who struggles to express affection at all, it wouldn’t be. This was the conundrum, how to help him begin to bless others purposefully. And then, as though the Spirit gripped my shoulder, I knew. Deep at the heart of our encouragement lives the unconquerable Divine element: Love. Encouragement is ultimately just another expression of love.
“Let’s try this first,” I said to Adam, “just tell someone that you love them and give them a hug, okay?” After all, it was those words—I love you—that changed the world, once and for all.
“Yes,” he’d said, instantly agreeing on a place to start.
Maybe it seems like an oversimplification, but learning to encourage is learning to express love, and without love, our expressions of encouragement mean nothing at all. The important thing is not where we start, but that we start at all; that we find a place to begin and try. So while Riley learns to deepen her expressions, Adam learns to express, but both encourage. And there’s just something about the way Adam emphasizes the word you, the way he drapes those gawky arms—something uniquely him—that fills us all with courage and confidence and spirit for pressing on.