Romans 12: 8
If it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
In midst of failure, when the whole world writes you off, you wish somebody vouches for you and trusts you. That little encouragement goes a long way. After the death of APJ Abdul Kalam, there are many tributes being paid to him which are very deserving. But one story that he recalled stands out and really touched me a lot. The story of his mentor Satish Dhawan. Let me put that story in the words of the Late APJ Abdul Kalam.
“Let me tell you about my experience. In 1973 I became the project director of India’s satellite launch vehicle program, commonly called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India’s “Rohini” satellite into orbit by 1980. I was given funds and human resources — but was told clearly that by 1980 we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of people worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal.
By 1979 — I think the month was August — we thought we were ready. As the project director, I went to the control center for the launch. At four minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began to go through the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, the computer program put the launch on hold; the display showed that some control components were not in order. My experts — I had four or five of them with me — told me not to worry; they had done their calculations and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer, switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.
That day, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, Prof. Satish Dhawan, had called a press conference. The launch was at 7:00 am, and the press conference — where journalists from around the world were present — was at 7:45 am at ISRO’s satellite launch range in Sriharikota [in Andhra Pradesh in southern India]. Prof. Dhawan, the leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. He took responsibility for the failure — he said that the team had worked very hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. Now, I was the project director, and it was my failure, but instead, he took responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization.
The next year, in July 1980, we tried again to launch the satellite — and this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there was a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, “You conduct the press conference today.”
I learned a very important lesson that day. When failure occurred, the leader of the organization owned that failure. When success came, he gave it to his team and encouraged it.”
When we discuss on encouragement or giving second chances, there is no better name than Barnabas who became famous not by his original name Joseph or the name of his tribe “Levi” but the name that explained his character and attribute of being an “Encourager”. But before we dwell on Barnabas, let us just look at the verse that is set before us and particularly on encouragement.
Romans 12:8 says, “If it (a person’s gift) is encouraging, let him encourage.” The Greek word is very interesting. It is parakaleo. Para is a preposition meaning “alongside of” and kaleo is a verb meaning “to call.” So parakaleo means “to call alongside of.” It has the idea of coming to the aid or assistance of someone else. In particular, it implies an ability to help someone in an area where he cannot help himself/herself.
It’s the picture of a weary traveler stumbling down the highway with a heavy load on his shoulders. His head is low, his shoulders stooped, his knees wobbly, his feet barely moving. Each step is an agony. As you watch him, he staggers and begins to fall. You can see that he will never make it. So you rush from your place, come alongside and you lift the load from his shoulders and place it on your own. Then you put your arm around him and say, “It’s all right, my brother. I’ll help you make it.” And together you walk on down the road. That’s parakaleo. It’s coming alongside another person to help him in his moment of need.
The person who does that is called a paraclete. That’s the Greek word used in John 14:16 for the Holy Spirit and in I John 2:1 for the Lord Jesus Christ. So this gift could be called exhortation or comfort or consolation or advocacy or encouragement. It is the divine ability to lift the load from a brother or sister and help them along the way.
So that brings us to Barnabas. The terror of Saul of Tarsus echoed everywhere. So no one was ready to buy his sudden change in heart and conversion. If no one believed in him, what good was his conversion? “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. (Acts 9: 26- 28). Barnabas turns out to be the Paraclete who is ready to steady the stumbling Saul when no one was ready to even look at him. This act turned Saul into Paul the apostle. Thanks to Barnabas’ act, we have 13 books in the New Testament written by Paul, the prolific apostle for Christ. Barnabas was ready to risk and encourage when none others believed. Paul was a man who benefitted by the magnanimous Barnabas who gave him a second chance. But the irony is, Paul was not ready to extend such favours to another man called John Mark. Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (Acts 15: 36-41) The background to that is found in Acts 13: 13, where in the First Missionary Journey where from Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. Paul thought John Mark was a failure and cannot be trusted. But Barnabas stuck with John Mark and sailed with him to Cyprus to spread the gospel. Later on Paul reconsidered his folly where we see in his second letter to Timothy he writes “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4: 11.) Thanks to Barnabas, we have the gospel of Mark written by this discard who fled away from mission at the first opportune time. One man believed that failure is not the end of the story. Given encouragement and support one will exhibit his divine nature and potential. In an age where the productivity of man and super talents are only that matter, losers have no place. They are considered a waste of time and a burden. We have moved to a society where only achievers and celebrities are considered humans. It here that we need more and more Barnabas to correct our course.
I will end this meditation with a story that has transformed me. Before going to Seminary as a pre- Seminary training, I was assigned to Navjeevan Centre, Mumbai. The special task that I was assigned by the director Rev. Dr. Moni Mathew, was to teach the 16 children who were preparing for their Standard 10th exams. This was exciting as I had to teach History, Economics, Business Studies and English along with Roshen George and Koshy Kurian. Before the exams there was an aptitude test arranged for these 16 children. I was with the Psychiatrist and Psychologist when they did the test. All the feedback was given to me. It quantified how successful a candidate would be in clearing the 10th Standard exam. Out of that, one boy Prakash was given the lowest marks. The Psychologist made it very clear that “He is not a good choice for academics. He will not do well. Be prepared that if he appears he may fail in all the subjects. He just does not have the aptitude. He is only fit for manual labour ” My heart sank. I shared the results with Moni Achen. He said “Prakash will write the exam. These are tests. It may be wrong. Do not tell this to him. If he knows this he may be discouraged. You just encourage. If he fails, it is ok. I will take care of that. He is entitled for a chance that everybody has.” Honestly it was very tough teaching Prakash. He took time to understand. But he was the most sincere among the 16. He woke up every day at 3:45 AM. He studied. He had many doubts. He kept asking all of us. He told me “It is very tough. I do not understand a lot of things. But I am praying. I am trying my best.” There were days Prakash felt discouraged but he kept trying. The day of exams came. One after the other exams was getting over. We all were worried about how the children would fair. This exam allowed failure in 2 subjects. So I was hoping at least that they should achieve. The result was out in July when I was in Seminary. The first result I asked Koshy was about Prakash. I expected the worst. I prayed for the best. He had passed in every single subject. Yes. Prakash had passed in every single subject. I just could not believe my ears. Tears flowed. I am still misty eyed writing this. Prakash had too many things against him. But he believed in God. He tried his best. There was a person in Moni achen who was ready to be a paraclete and stand by Prakash to give him a chance. It was a very important reminder for me, never to write anyone off. I thank God for the timely lessons.
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church,
Kolar Road, Bhopal