“You Feed Them” – An Invitation to Divine Partnership

Loaves_fishesI’ve been seeing something lately that’s always been there, and maybe I’ve even known it by another name, but it’s become fresh, more meaningful and more powerfully inviting.

It’s the impression of Jesus’ deep desire to enlist more people into partnership with him in the mission of freeing people, helping them, and letting them know how much they are loved by Heaven. In a hurting world desperate for answers but met only by empty religious duties and regulations, or a culture overflowing with overzealous morality, this mission is as vital now as much as ever.

It’s not about soul-winning. It’s not about Christian duty. It’s not about transforming society or even populating heaven.  It’s about tapping into divine power to meet the needs of those around us. It’s about feeding those who are hungry — in a spiritual as well as physical sense — and easing the pain and hopelessness of people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36; Num 27:15-17).  We see this in Jesus’ heart-felt plea to his followers, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field” (Mt 9:37-38). Immediately after saying this, he sends them out into the surrounding towns and villages with instructions to drive out evil spirits, heal the sick, and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived. There were so many in need, the burden was too much for him to carry alone.  And he wanted his closest friends to share in the task and with the same divine authority.

Like when Peter wanted to walk on water with Jesus, Jesus responds with characteristic encouragement: “Come on, try it out.”  He is not jealous of his divine prerogatives; he isn’t stingy with his power — especially when there are so many people needing help.  He WANTS us to jump in there with him, to take up the ball and run with it.  So many are depending on us.

You can hear this invitation to partnership when Jesus is faced with a tired and hungry crowd of 5000.  They followed him around, always wanting to hear more, see more, experience more of what he had to offer. And even when he was exhausted from the constant demand on him, he still had compassion on those who were clinging so desperately.  When his protégés wanted to send them away, he replies, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Mt 14:16).  Instead of ignoring the need, Jesus delegates the responsibility to them.

When I read “they do not need to go away,” I hear him saying, “just because I’m tired doesn’t mean the work stops. I’m not the only one who can help. YOU do something about the problem.” Of course, his disciple panic. “How are we going to handle this? We only have a few loaves of bread and two measly fish.”  You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he tells them “bring them here to me.”  “Really? You’re still gonna make me do this by myself. Here, let me show you how.” Then he looks up to heaven, gives thanks to God for the resources (as small as they might be), and starts dividing the bread and fish into meal-sized portions.

But here’s the key: “Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.”  Jesus enlisted their help.  He brought his protégés into the miracle, as though saying “this is what you guys should have done.”  He needed their help, wanted it, even if it meant more hand-holding.  And his disciples distributed the food to everyone. With more coaching from the boss, they we able to meet the need of all those tired and hungry people.

And the result?  “They all ate and were satisfied.”  Catch this. This is the whole point of his invitation. When we partner with Jesus, when we take up his work — as he instructed, as he so earnestly desired — people are satisfied. They move from being needy, from being harassed and helpless, from being tired, desperate and hungry, to being content and fulfilled. It’s a restoring process, the on-going work of the Kingdom. And this is the work assigned to us. No one person can do the job by himself. Your local pastor cannot carry the weight alone. He cannot answer all the phone calls, he can’t visit everyone in the hospital, he can’t do all the counseling, or respond to all the requests for prayer. The work was never meant to be handled by a select few.  It was always intended to be shared by many — by all of us who claim to be Jesus’ followers.

The situation hasn’t changed. The need is great, the harvest is plentiful, but there are always too few workers. Why? Usually because we feel unqualified. We feel like it’s not our job, or that someone else is supposed to do it.  But this is not true, regardless of how inadequate we may feel.  The disciples didn’t feel up to the task; they constantly doubted their own abilities to meet the challenge.  And notice, Jesus NEVER gets on them for trying to do too much. He never criticizes them for wanting to help or even from being presumptuous enough to think they too could tap into divine power to handle situations.  His rebuke only came when they were being lazy or when they lacked the faith.  He attacked their sense of inferiority and inadequacy.  He was trying with all his energy to equip them to take on this great task of helping the people, of freeing them from lack, from bondage, from powerlessness, from fear, from oppression, from spiritual hunger, and from blindness to their great value to the Eternal King. And he knew he could not do it all himself. His job was to train us so we could carry on the work.  And it was the deepest cry of his heart: “send more workers!”  When he saw all the hurting people, he was moved with compassion and stirred to help them. And he longed for many more to come alongside him and join the battle.

That urgent invitation was not limited to those earliest disciple alone. His instructions echo on to us as well. The need is still great. The harvest is still plentiful. People are still hurting, and there is still so much work to be done.

We need to hear the words of Jesus again, this time as a personal invitation to participate in the miraculous. The world is waiting for it. People are counting on it. “They don’t need to go away. You feed them.”

Storms Always Come Up When You’re Trying to Cross Over

boat2Expect it. Just accept the fact that it’s gonna happen, and don’t let the threat of it stop you.  You will always encounter storms whenever you’re trying to cross over to the other side.  Of anything.

It’s a fact of life, illustrated so graphically in the Gospels when Jesus one days tells his close group of disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake” (Mark 4:35). He and his crew had just had a long day of teaching and healing and dealing with crowds of needy people, and he wanted to move on.  Maybe he was just looking to get away to a place where they could get some peace and quiet, or maybe he recognized that he was finished where he was and it was time to continue on to a new location. In either case, they climb into a boat, he immediately crashes into a deep sleep, and out of nowhere, a furious squall hits them.

Most of us going through changes in our lives can relate. Whether it’s one messy situation we’re escaping and trying to rebuild our lives, or it may be that we’ve achieved one set of goals and it’s time to step it up and move to the next phase of life, a lot of us are on the move.  And change is messy. Change is hard.  Change makes you vulnerable. And when you’re in transition, that is the point that storms will invariably be thrown at you to knock you off your course.  We can pick up a few survival lessons from this story.

Leaving the Crowds Behind

“Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him” (Mk 4:36). When you’re moving into a new stage of life, you’ve got to leave some stuff behind. Doesn’t matter if it’s just “stuff”, or it’s old situations, former friends or former nuisances. Whatever the case may be, one of the key principles is that there’s gonna be some separation from what you were surrounded with, what you were used to. You’ve gonna have to drop some stuff and some people in the process.

Matthew’s account of this same story adds some interesting details to this point (Mt 8:18-27).  Between the time Jesus gave the order to cross over and the time they actually climb into the boat, two would-be followers drop out. One, initially so enthusiastic, says “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus warns him he’ll have to leave his source of security behind, that there will little comfort during the journey. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I have no place to lay my head.” And we hear nothing more from this guy. I guess it was too much for him. Another guy says, “Hey, I want to follow you, but I’ve got to take care of my folks first.”  A valid enough excuse, even an honorable one. But it was an excuse none-the-less to not start the journey RIGHT NOW.  Jesus’ response: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Sounds harsh to our soft Western ears, but basically he was undercutting the guy’s excuse. “Unh unh, now is the time. Those future concerns will take care of themselves.”  Apparently, that didn’t make the guy very happy, and he vanishes from the scene.  No excuse is good enough.  The time is now. You’re supposed to move. You’ve got the order to cross over.  Stop making excuses.  The good news is that you won’t be alone. Jesus is in the boat with you. But not only that, “other boats” are making the crossing too.  The journey you’re supposed to be on isn’t meant to be traveled alone.  Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of company. But this time, company going in the same direction and with the same goal as you.

Tempest in a Teapot

“A furious squall came up, and waves broke over the boat so that it was nearly swamped.” (Mk 4:37). The Sea of Galilee is a small lake, 7 miles wide by 14 miles long. But it’s surrounded by hills, and wind can whip calm water into roaring waves quite suddenly, like swirling water in a teapot. When you’re out in the middle of that, it can be quite terrifying.  You are at your most vulnerable when you’re in the middle of transition — when you’ve left the secure, familiar ground for a new shore. Sometimes you’ll be so preoccupied with the process of change that you’ll not notice the early signs of the storm, and it will catch you totally off guard and unprotected. (Matthew adds that the storm rose up “without warning.”)  But these guys should have been prepared for this. Several of them were fishermen who’d spent most of their lives on that lake. And we need to learn this lesson: we should expect a storm when we’re out in the boat, even if we don’t see any early signs of it.  That sudden squall will make us want to turn back, quit the journey, and head back to our former safe harbor. And realistically, that’s probably its purpose. To stop you. You’ve got people and unseen forces often wanting you to fail, resisting your every bold step forward.  You may get spooked, you may panic. You may want to quit.  But don’t.

“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mk 4:38). Isn’t that our typical response? I’ve been there, I’ve done that. It’s taken a whole lot of pushing to get me moved out of my comfortable position to venture out in this new direction, and often my first reaction in the face of this unexpected resistance is to question God.  “Don’t you see? Don’t you care?!”  The unexpected surprise of it has thrown off my momentum, and like those disciples I fall back and huddle in the corner of the boat. It’s human. It’s normal. But we need to grow past that and change how we react.

Tell it to Shut Up!

“Jesus got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?'” (Mk 4:39). Come on, people. We may not be able to command the wind and the water like the Messiah (or at least not as effectively and immediately), but that wake-up call is to us as well.  We were told to get on the move. We were called up to a new place, commanded to cross over.  Resistance will come. The wind will howl, the waves will crash against us, even to the point of swamping us, overwhelming us. But with that divine command also came authority. And we need to train ourselves to use it.  We need to get aggressive. “Shut up. Stop that!”  Remember the Apostle Paul’s words, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against powers …”  We wrestle. It may take a little energy. When trouble comes — and if you’re on the move, it WILL come — don’t cower down. Don’t retreat or go back. Stand up, and with an assurance of the authority given to you inherent in your orders to move, resist it. Tell it to stop. And the powers of heaven will back you up. By yourself, you’re no match for the strength of those forces.  But that’s the beauty of authority. It’s not by your strength or by your power. Sometimes all you need to do is speak the word, and you’ll unleash the power of heaven to break into your situation. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”  You’ve come this far. You can go back if you want, but you’ll forfeit so much.  Don’t lose faith, don’t get spooked by the resistance.  Deal with it.  Get tough with it.  Dispense with it quickly, then press on. Keep going.

After the storm quiets down, they arrive at the other side. They’re finally at the next stage of their journey. And more adventure awaits them.  In the Gospels, when they reach the other side, they’re met by a man possessed with an evil spirit. I’m sure they were thinking: “Crap! This is just what we need right now!”  But the situation gets handled easily, and they continue on.  And so will you.

Many of us are crossing over. We’re in transition, moving on with new things in our lives — new adventures, new purpose. Resistance will come. It’s part of the same old, well-worn strategy to stop us.  But half the battle is won if we’re not caught off guard by it, if we expect it.