When Jesus Isn’t Able

Jesus went back to his hometown, and Mark 6:5 says, “Jesus wasn’t able to do much of anything there—he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them, that’s all” (The Message).

When I read this last week, it took me by surprise. Jesus … not able to do much of anything? In the midst of healing thousands, calming storms, raising dead people to life, and feeding thousands with a Lunchable, Jesus experienced a “failure.” Of course, his power was sufficient. It always is. But their stubbornness and unbelief was the obstacle to his work having any effect. The problem was not in Jesus’ power; the problem was their hearts, which were hard, shallow, or full of weeds (see Mark 4:1-20 and my post about it here).

We can only imagine Jesus’ dismay over the fact that he could not bring healing or insight to these people, his own friends and family. Jesus was simply too familiar to them. They knew of the Jesus from the past–the son of Joseph and Mary–but they did not know the Jesus of Today, the Son of God who had the power to bring healing and transformation to their lives. So he moved on to other places.

Hmm…. does this still happen? Have we become too familiar with Jesus (and the way we’ve always done things) to be healed and transformed by him? Do we know the Jesus of the past from Bible stories we learned as a child, or do we know him and how he is working Today, in our midst?

As you meet as a small group, move beyond the stories of what Jesus did. Talk about–better yet, experience–what he is doing. He is indeed present in your group meetings–right now. Don’t just meet to study the Jesus of the past through Bible study. Be sure your hearts are softened and prepared to experience his presence, power, and purposes Today.

Otherwise, Jesus may have to move on to other places.

Is Blood Really Thicker Than Water?

“Blood is thicker than water.”

I’ve given that proverb a lot of thought for a long time. The saying goes back hundreds of years and means that the bonds of family are stronger than those between friends. I know plenty of people (those who have messy relationships with their families of origin) who would argue with that opinion at even a purely sociological level. But what about spiritually?

This past week I read Mark 3, in which Jesus’ mother and brothers showed up looking for him. Jesus’ response is surprising:

“Who do you think are my mother and brothers?” Looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he said, “Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35, The Message).

Jesus was talking about his disciples–those who had left everything to follow him. At another time, he spoke of the high cost of being his disciple. He said we as his disciples should be willing to surrender our family of origin–even our own life–to follow him and be a part of his spiritual family (Luke 14:26).

Growing up, I was taught, Friends come and go, but family is forever. That’s a part of most people’s worldview. Today, as a Christ follower, that saying has taken on a different meaning. I know my relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ are eternal. I hope my relationships with my birth family are as well.

Our new birth is more important than our natural birth. When we were born again, we were born into a spiritual family–the church, the body of Christ. They are now my spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters (see 1 John 2:12-14 for an encouragement to us as spiritual family members). I am a new person in Christ and I have a new family, and that family is my priority.

Who are these family members? Like a natural family, we have extended family members (people in our local congregation) and even “kin” (everyone who is a part of Christ’s family around the world). But our real priority is our immediate family–those with whom we do life together as a small group. Your small group is your spiritual immediate family.

When you were born again, your relationships with your Christ-following friends changed. They had been water relationships. Now they are blood relationships. Just as Jesus changed water into wine (wine symbolizing his blood), Jesus makes you a part of his family. Now we’re blood brothers and sisters in him!

Now, here’s something truly amazing … and vital. Jesus said that those who obey God’s will are our spiritual family. Not just those who happen to be thrown into a group with us. Not just the people we meet with on Friday nights. Not just those with whom we study the Bible and pray. Jesus’ definition of this spiritual family has everything to do with surrender of our own wills to obey God’s will–together.

What are you doing as a leader to help your group members obey God’s will? How are you pursuing God’s will together as a family? Blood is thicker than water. But spiritual blood is even thicker … and deeper.

First, Check the Heart

“How’s the condition of your heart?” What would happen if you asked that question as an icebreaker before your next study? What if you asked it before a conversation with your kid? What if you asked yourself, “What’s the condition of this person’s heart right now?” even before sharing the gospel with someone?

I love the story Jesus told about a farmer scattering seed (Mark 4). Only those planted in the good, fertile soil can truly surrender to God’s will. The conditions of the others’ hearts–hardened, shallow, overwhelmed–don’t allow the gospel to take root. Those folks may believe in facts about Jesus; they may accept him as the savior they need. But they have not surrendered to him–he is not Lord and Leader of their lives.

Whether leading a small group or leading a person to Christ, do I first check the condition of their hearts? What a great disservice I’m doing to them–and the Kingdom–if I ignore the condition of the heart that the seed of the gospel is being planted into.

The Holy Spirit cultivates and changes people’s hearts. Remember, no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). But he also uses us in that process. He does his work in real, healthy community. He uses our stories. He uses our leadership (follow my example as I follow the example of Christ–1 Corinthians 11:1). He uses us as his ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). He uses our prayers.
This morning I prayed for several of my friends who have not yet surrendered to Christ, and then I also prayed a similar prayer for several members of our small group. I asked God to work on their hearts, to loosen up the ground, remove the rocks and weeds, fertilize it (make it fertile) so that his seed can take root and flourish.

By the way, How’s the condition of your heart today?

Jesus’ Power to Multiply

In whose hands is your small group?

This morning I read from Mark 6, which includes the account of Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. I love Wiersbe’s illumination in his commentary:

The miracle took place in His hands, not in theirs; for whatever we give to Him, He can bless and multiply. We are not manufacturers; we are only distributors.
—Warren Wiersbe, Bible Exposition Commentary – New Testament

What are you holding onto in your own hands today? Your small group? Your family? Your finances? Your ministry? Your job? When we place what we’ve been given in Jesus’ hands–an act of surrender and stewardship–he has the power to multiply it. In his hands, he provides superabundantly–to overflowing (John 10:10).

Would you like to see your small group grow and multiply? Would you like Him to bless your life? It’s not so much about your methods, your goals, and your abilities. It’s about putting the group–and your very life–in Jesus’ hands and then being a faithful steward in your role.

God’s Calling or Spiritual Gifts: Which Comes First?

Which comes first, God’s calling or knowing your spiritual gift?

The way most churches approach this today, discovering your spiritual gifts comes first, and then you decide where to serve based on that information. It’s my opinion that that’s 180 degrees off the mark, and this has a profound effect on our churches.

God told Moses to appear before Pharaoh. Moses argued and protested over and over, and finally pleaded, “O Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words” (Exodus 4:10). In other words, “God, that’s not my spiritual gift.”

I love God’s response: “Who makes mouths? Who makes people so they can speak or not speak, hear or not hear, see or not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and do as I have told you. I will help you speak well, and I will tell you what to say” (vv. 11, 12). In other words, “Go and obey. I’ll provide the gifts to do what I’ve called you to do!”

I’ve read and studied all the “gifts” passages in the New Testament and I see several threads weaved through all of them:

  1. God calls us; spiritual gifts are meaningless outside of his calling on our lives (Ephesians 4:1; Romans 12:1-2).
  2. God gives us spiritual gifts so that we can serve others (1 Peter 4:10; Ephesians 4:12; 1 Corinthians 12:7).
  3. Spiritual gifts are always discussed within the context of unity, humility, and partnership within Christ’s body (Romans 12:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-27; Ephesians 4:2-6, 16; 1 Peter 4:8).
  4. The environment where spiritual gifts operate is in Christian community. The context of every spiritual gifts passage is how Christ’s body works together in community.
  5. The purpose of spiritual gifts is to build up Christ’s body, the church, so that he will receive all the glory (Ephesians 4:12; 1 Peter 4:11).

As far as I know, spiritual gifts tests are a very recent invention. For thousands of years, Christ followers have discovered their gifts in community as God called people to serve. Gifts are discovered, understood, and then used — all in authentic community where we encourage one another, speak the truth in love, spur one another on to love and good deeds, teach and admonish one another, accept one another, carry each others’ burdens, pray for each other, and live in harmony with one another.

Perhaps the church today has needed spiritual gifts tests because we’re missing out on that kind of healthy, life-changing, biblical community. What do you think?

Time with My Friend

A friend is someone I will make time for. If someone offers friendship to me, it’s a rare privilege, but if I do not make time to be with him, we are not friends. Moses understood this.

“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”
– Exodus 33:11

This is the kind of relationship with God I desire, that he would talk with me “as a man speaks to his friend.” In Moses’ time this was a very rare privilege that was unavailable to the rest of the Israelites. But today this kind of relationship is accessible because of Jesus. He called his followers (and that includes you and me)  his “friends” (John 15:15).

 Moses pleaded with God to not give up on his people but to continue to personally go with them on their journey. God reassured Moses, “you have found favor with me, and you are my friend” (Ex. 33:17).

I have favor with God and I am his friend, not because of anything great I have done, but because Jesus has made it accessible to me–and you. Both Moses and Jesus modeled this friendship with God by spending time with him, abiding with him.

As someone who desires to be a leader after God’s own heart, friendship with God is available to me–what a privilege! My response is to to stop from my busyness, rest, abide, hang out with God for awhile today, spend time with my friend. That’s what I’m going to do. How about you?

Who a Leader Listens to

A leader must know who to listen to.

When Moses failed to come back down the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron. “Look,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us….” So Aaron said, “Tell your wives and sons and daughters to take off their gold earrings, and then bring them to me.” All the people obeyed Aaron and brought him their gold earrings. Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded and tooled it into the shape of a calf. The people exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”
– Exodus 32:1-4, NLT

Aaron had been chosen by God as Israel’s High Priest. And yet he totally blew it. He was a leader who led the people the wrong way. His intentions may not have been bad, but he listened to the wrong voices.

As a leader, I have to be careful not to lead God’s people to worship anything other than God! Regardless of how much people ask and plead and push–no matter what seemingly great ideas they have, I must not give in. A leader after God’s own heart learns to listen to one voice above all the babble of human voices. A leader after God’s own heart has spent enough time with God to know and follow his voice and lead others to worship and serve him only.

Some of those human voices will be very strong, and we will be tempted to listen to and follow them. Some will reverberate with reason and a certain power and authority, yet God’s still small voice is more powerful to the leader after God’s own heart. Some human voices promise popularity, power, position, and even prosperity, but the leader after God’s own heart does not give in to them.

What “golden calf” have I made for the people I lead? Numbers? Buildings? Organization? Programs? ? The success of my church or ministry or group? Is it time to stop, ask for God’s forgiveness, and turn back toward the one true God?

Oh, Father, you have called me to leadership in your church and I want to follow you because I know your voice! Amid the babble of all the other human voices competing for my attention, I desire to hear your still, small voice loud and clear. As a leader after your own heart, Father, help me to stay true to you and your way so that I may lead people to worship nothing and no one else but you.

Follow the Instructions

I love building things, but I hate following instructions. So, I often end up with extra pieces … or find I’ve skipped a step, so I have to take half the thing apart and rebuild it … or the “completed” project just does not work. I end up having to look at the directions anyway to see where I went wrong. It was like that when the Israelites were building the Tabernacle and it’s like that today when God is using us to build our families, our small groups, or his church. He told Moses,

“They must follow exactly all the instructions I have given you.”
– Exodus 31:11

It was not enough that God called and gifted specific people to build his Tabernacle, they were to do it exactly the way he had instructed them. It’s the same today. He calls us and He gifts us to carry out His instructions for His church.

God did not provide detailed instructions in the New Testament for building his church as he did for the construction of the Tabernacle or Temple in the Old Testament. Or maybe he has, but the instructions are different.

The New Testament church is about relationships, not structures. God now resides in the hearts of his people, not in buildings. God now provides grace-based guidelines rather than legalistic regulations. Therefore his instructions today are relational in nature. They are about how to be in relationship with him and one another.

Yes, we still need to follow God’s instructions, and when we don’t, his church does not work very well. There are “extra pieces” that don’t seem to fit. We have to constantly go back and try to fix things that are not working. Or the church just does not seem to work at all. So we finally go back and see what the instructions say:

  • Love one another
  • Carry each others’ burdens
  • Serve one another
  • Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another
  • Honor one another above yourselves
  • Submit to one another
  • Teach and admonish one another
  • Bear with one another
  • Encourage one another

Imagine if we followed exactly these instructions the Lord has given us!

Stop Recruiting!

When you as a leader look around your spheres of influence, you’ll probably notice that the opportunities usually far outweigh your resources. So what do you do? The Best Leader Ever made it simple:

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” 
– Matthew 9:37-38

For years I’ve been following this instruction, constantly praying that God will provide the leaders we need to carry out the mission he’s given us. I do not recruit in the normal way that we usually think of recruiting. Rather, I ask, wait on God, watch expectantly, and then talk to the people God sends me. This is an active, not passive, approach, but I let God, not me, be in control of the process.

Today, I was reading Exodus 31, which sheds additional light on this approach. God was talking to Moses on the mountain about the building of his Tabernacle:

“Look, I have chosen Bezalel…. I have filled him with the Spirit of God, giving him great wisdom, intelligence, and skill in all kinds of crafts. He is able to create beautiful objects from gold, silver, and bronze. He is skilled in cutting and setting gemstones and in carving wood. Yes, he is a master at every craft!”
– Exodus 31:2-5
God not only sends workers into his harvest fields, he fills them and gifts them to carry out his work. He never calls us to do something without providing the resources to carry it out. So why would we ever work from our own limited resources to do his work? In verse 6, God continues,
“Moreover, I have given special skill to all the naturally talented craftsmen so they can make all the things I have instructed you to make.”
Some people are “naturally talented” at certain skills. It’s part of how God created them in the first place. Even to them, God gives “special skill” to carry out the work he wants accomplished. This is more about God’s calling and gifting than our recruiting and training. A leader after God’s own heart takes ample time to listen to God and lets him lead. He knows that God is calling and gifting people all around us to carry out the mission he has given us.
God has called and gifted me as a leader in his church. I have a choice today to either:
  • in my own power and wisdom, make a list of potential people I think might be good team members, then make an appointment and recruit them to join my team, or
  • ask the Lord of his church to send to me the people he has called, knowing he has gifted them to carry out what God has given us to do. I can ask him to give me the spiritual eyes to see them when he puts them in front of me and the wisdom to ask them to join us in what God is calling us to do.
No doubt about it, I’m choosing the second option. How about you?

It’s OK to Bowl Alone

Yesterday I went bowling alone, and I enjoyed it immensely. I was in Evansville, Indiana, with my son Dru and his friend Christian who were in a bouldering competition. I had a couple hours to kill before the comp actually started, so I puttered around Barnes & Noble and then went bowling. Around the fourth frame of the third game, I thought about the book, Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, which describes the decline of community in America since 1950. But I was really enjoying my time bowling alone! And then I thought of Jesus and how he often got away from the crowds to be in solitude.

“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
– Luke 5:16

It may be surprising to hear a community junkie like me say this, but I believe that being in community and being in solitude are equally vital for our spiritual and emotional health. They form a symbiotic relationship. As the church today we are doing a great job promoting community, but a poor job promoting solitude.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants to fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

Father, help me to live a balanced life in both community and solitude. Help me to enjoy times alone with you and times together in community. Help me to be more Christ-like … to not fear being alone, but to often seek time away from the crowds and the groups to be alone with you.