There were once two brothers who couldn’t have been more different. One was always cheerful, the other always grumpy. Their parents worried about them both, thinking that they needed to be more balanced in their outlook on life.
So, they took the kids to a psychologist who decided to engage in an experiment. He took the grumpy brother and put him in a room full of wonderful toys. The psychologist instructed the child to play with the toys for a while and they’d come back later to check on him. He then took the happy brother to a horse barn, full of manure, and instructed him to shovel the manure for a while. They’d come back later to check on him.
After a while had passed, the psychologist and parents went back to check on the grumpy brother, expecting to find him happy, playing with all the great toys. Instead, they found him crying in the middle of the room. When asked what was wrong, the brother responded that one toy broke and another was the wrong color and a third made a funny noise. He had all the reasons why every toy was no good.
Disappointed with the results, they went to the happy brother, expecting to find him sullen, too, having spent a while shoveling horse manure. When they approached him, they found him whistling, happy as could be, shoveling the manure. They asked the brother how he could be so happy when he’d spent so much time shoveling manure. The brother replied:
“With all this manure everywhere, I figured there must be a pony somewhere!”
It’s a great joke. I learned it as part of my counseling training. My professor called it the fourth of the four basic counseling skills, referring to this joke to say that it’s always possible to find something positive in the negative comments given by a client. And indeed, it was our job as counselors to reflect the positive we found back to the client so that she or he could reframe their current negative mindset.
It works in counseling and it works in real life. I use this technique all the time in meetings, especially where the conversation gets negative or rancorous. It’s not pollyanna, it’s not pie in the sky, it’s finding something to actually be positive about and reflecting it back so that the conversation can take on a more balanced, if not more positive, tone.
In other words, finding the pony makes it possible to lead with encouragement.
What if we all lived lives where we lead with encouragement? What if we lived find the pony kind of lives?
Let’s hear our scripture this morning. It’s the Beatitudes, as found in Matthew.
Jesus finds the pony.
Jesus has just gone up the mount to preach. This is the opening of his teaching ministry in the gospel of Matthew. Before this, he’s spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted. Then, he leaves and begins to perform miracles, creating quite a following. People are so intrigued by this new prophet who can do signs and wonders. They want to know more about him.
So a crowd forms. But this is no ordinary crowd. This is a crowd devoid of the wealthy, powerful, and elite of society. It’s a crowd of the poor, the weak, the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed, the underprivileged. They are the ones who are attracted to Jesus. Those who have enough in this life don’t feel a need for Jesus. What could he provide that they don’t already have? But those who don’t have enough flock to this man who heals, provides, and loves.
So Jesus goes up on a mountain to preach to them, to begin his teaching ministry. Picture the scene: Jesus is ready to give a speech, a crowd has formed around him, there’s a buzz in the air because everyone knows they’re going to hear a great teaching from a man they understand to be the greatest prophet they’ve had in a while. Matthew paints Jesus as a new Moses and undoubtedly some of the crowd thinks of him that way.
Picture the scene: This is a big crowd full of people who are moving around, who are standing and talking, who have children running around screaming and playing and crying and doing what children do. There’s a palpable buzz of excitement. There’s the energy that comes from that buzz. This is more like a crowd at a concert right before a band takes the stage. Or a crowd right before a football team takes the field. Or a crowd right before a rally.
This is a crowd ready to be further energized. Ready for Jesus to kickoff the ball and run it back 90 yards for a touchdown. Ready for Jesus to grab his guitar and start rocking. Ready for Jesus to go, “Galilee! How you doing? Let me hear you!”
This is a crowd ready to be motivated to action, ready to go. If Jesus treats this like a pep rally, he can win their loyalty. “Yo, Galilee! Welcome to this first rally for a new Israel!” You can hear the crowd go wild. That’s exactly what they’re hoping this new Moses will do: take them back to the old days when they had political independence, when things were better in their mind’s eye, when they were peaceful and fat and happy. They want to go back to the past, they want things to be as they once were.
Jesus could easily, with an energizing, political, speech, have this crowd on his side, grab their loyalty, and then have a base of support from which to operate as he moves to create a new Israel. This is a great moment for Jesus. In this crowd, with their buzz of excitement and eager anticipation, Jesus has tremendous opportunity to become a powerful political figure.
And to do something we all want to do: create security in his leadership. To know that he has a following. To know that he is supported. We all as leaders want that kind of security. And Jesus can have it if he will seize on the energy of this crowd.
But instead, he sits down and begins with the beatitudes. Instead of seizing the opportunity for power, he encourages them. Instead of garnering their loyalty, he loves on them. Instead of leading for his own benefit, he helps them find the pony.
Jesus leads with encouragement.
Most of us have heard the beatitudes most of our lives. That includes me. But as I prepared this sermon, it struck me that this is the opening of Jesus’s first speech to the people of Israel. This is how the sermon on the mount begins, with encouragement.
Jesus’s opening message in his public ministry is to find the pony.
He could have led in the ways just described, but instead he sees that this crowd needs encouragement. These are the poor, the weak, the humiliated, the despised, the sick, the outcasted, the oppressed, the marginalized. They are the people who think that society doesn’t work for them. They are the ones that struggle to get by every month and some months just don’t make it. They are the ones who are full of resentment. They are the ones hardened and embittered by the life they’ve lived. They are the not polite society.
And they are in much need of encouragement in this life.
And so Jesus leads with encouragement by helping them find the pony. He says:
Blessed are you who are downtrodden and run over by life, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you who are depressed and aggrieved by life, for you will be comforted.
Blessed are you who are lowly and of little regard from polite society, for you will inherit the land.
Blessed are you who are eager to see justice done, for you will find it.
Blessed are you who show mercy when it’s not deserved, for you will receive the same.
Blessed are you who are going on toward perfection, living lives as disciples, for you will see God.
Blessed are you who make peace when the world says make war, for God calls you his children.
In this paraphrase of the beatitudes, you hear the encouragement Jesus has for the crowd; the words they need to hear because of the way life has treated them. For all the ways they’re suffering, they will be blessed. For all the ways they know hardship, they will be blessed.
So, rather than use this moment to create security in his leadership, he puts the people before himself, helping them find the pony in their lives.
Jesus sets the example. He leads with encouragement.
What would it look like if, in our lives, we led with encouragement?
Consider the last time someone said a critical thing to you. I bet it’s not hard to think back to when that was and what that was. Negative comments stick in our mind like glue and are hard to remove.
Now consider the last time someone said something encouraging to you. I bet that’s harder to recall unless it happened very recently. Negative comments hit harder and stay longer in our minds than positive ones. It’s just human nature.
It’s said that we need four to five positive interactions with someone to overcome every one negative interaction. It’s just human nature.
That’s why we must actively choose to lead with encouragement. It doesn’t come naturally. The key word in find the pony is find: we often have to go looking for the positive in this life. Quite often, we have to work hard, dig our way through piles of manure, to find ways to be encouraging.
But it’s essential that we do. If we all have in common those negative experiences, if we all have in common ways that life has been hard and drug us down, if we all have in common being downtrodden, depressed, lowly, suffering under a burden of injustice and conflict, then we all have in common the need for encouragement.
We can be a blessing to others when we help them find the pony, when we lead with encouragement.
What would it look like if you lived your life leading with encouragement?
It would mean taking the time to appreciate the people in your life. There are folks in our lives that we value highly but rarely tell them so. There are folks in our lives whom we could not live without but we rarely show them affection. There are folks in our lives who have made a difference in ours but my guess is we haven’t told them so haven’t told them very often or at all.
It would also mean leading with encouragement in our various leadership roles, whether in board rooms or in organizations or in our homes and families. How often do we tell our subordinates how they need to improve or do better? And then how often do we tell the same subordinates what they’re doing well and how much we appreciate their work? How often do we tell our siblings and uncles and aunts how much we appreciate them and are glad for their presence in our lives? Doing these things often is how we lead with encouragement.
Around town, are we quick to be critical of our city and county governments, of the service we get at a restaurant, of the employees at the stores where we shop? How often do we thank those people for their service? Retail and government work are thankless jobs. We have the opportunity to change their thankless jobs by showing them we appreciate their service to us. That’s how we lead with encouragement.
Taking the time to show appreciation is how we lead with encouragement. That’s one of the things Jesus models for us here.
Leading with encouragement also means being receptive to the needs of those around us, just as Jesus could read the crowd. We can all notice when someone is off, doesn’t seem right, looks downtrodden or depressed. Often, it’s tempting to not bother them, thinking that they probably want to be left alone or not bothered. But quite often that’s a lie we tell ourselves so we can feel better about not doing the right thing, which is to check on them. If they want to be left alone, they’ll tell you, but the fact that you took the time to check on them will register quite positively in their lives. And if they do want to talk, then you’ve been the friend they needed, leading with encouragement.
Taking the time to show appreciation is how we lead with encouragement. Checking in on those we see suffering is also how we lead with encouragement. And then, we lead with encouragement by following the example of humility Jesus set with the crowd.
When leading, Jesus put the needs of the people before his own. If he had acted in any of the ways we mentioned a moment ago, whipping the crowd into a frenzy or otherwise manipulating them to form a base of support, he would have known better security in his leadership. And we all want that security. It’s tempting to lead first and foremost for ourselves and our own security. But he didn’t.
Instead, Jesus led with encouragement. One day, in each of our leadership roles that we hold, we will be gone and replaced by someone else. In my case, one day, the chamber will have a new chair. One day, this church will have a new pastor. I am not essential to the running of this church. We are not essential to the leadership of our businesses, organizations, nonprofits, or even families. We are all replaceable.
Consider that even Jesus was replaceable in his earthly ministry. He was replaced with us, the church, after his resurrection and ascension. He showed proper humility by putting the encouragement of his people first. And so should we.
If we know our time as leaders is temporary, then we should want to make the biggest difference possible for those we lead in the time we have. Jesus felt that ticking clock. And so, he led with encouragement.
Which means finding the pony for those we lead. We do so when we show our businesses and organizations and families what good they have, what talents they possess, what skills they bring to the table. We do so when we go out of our way to thank folks for their labor. We do so when we love on our employees, showing them that they are appreciated. If we will reflect back the good we find, the ponies we find even in organizations that seem to be full of manure, we will leave those organizations in better shape than we found them, stronger than we found them.
For all of us who are leaders, it’s essential that, with all humility, we lead with encouragement, that we reflect back the ponies we find, that we help to shovel the manure away. We are not essential as leaders. But, we can make an essential difference in the organizations we lead by finding the pony, leading with encouragement.
So, we lead with encouragement by taking the time to appreciate others, by checking in on those we see who are suffering, and by finding the pony for the people we lead.
Jesus demonstrates to us to lead with encouragement. It’s a tough thing to do because it requires we get into a new habit, that we overcome the human penchant for negativity.
So here’s a place to start. This week, sit down and write ten greeting cards to people you’re thankful for. Show them some love and appreciation.
Then, if you’re a leader, write thank you notes to those with the toughest jobs in your business, organization, or family and put them in the mail.
We all still love getting mail. Those cards showing up around town will create much encouragement. And if everyone who watches or reads this sermon does that, almost 2,000 cards will go through the mail.
Then, after this week, make a plan for how you’ll continue to show appreciation to others. We all need it. We’re all suffering in this life. So we can all be beacons of hope, blessings to others, if we will lead with encouragement by checking in on the suffering, appreciating the people in our lives, and finding the pony for those we lead.
To the poor in spirit, we can be a blessing when we check in on them.
To those who mourn, we can be a blessing when we check in on them.
To the meek, we can be a blessing when we appreciate them.
To those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, we can be a blessing when we appreciate them.
To the merciful, we can be a blessing when we appreciate them.
To the pure in heart, we can be a blessing we when we appreciate them.
To the peacemakers, we can be a blessing when we help them find the pony.
To the persecuted, we can be a blessing when we help them find the pony.
We can be a blessing if we will lead with encouragement.
Go, write those cards, embrace humility, help others find the ponies that are all around us.
Lead with encouragement.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.