Now, I know what you’re probably thinking - Julianne, that’s why you get a headcount beforehand! Yes, you are correct, and that is what I would do. But a headcount doesn’t always tell the truth. Some students who signed up beforehand wouldn’t be able to make it at the last minute, and others wouldn’t sign up but would still show up. But really, the main reason a headcount doesn’t always work is that you cannot predict how much a tiny middle schooler will eat. Sometimes they are in the mood to eat for four people and sometimes they show up without an appetite. You think you know, but you usually have no idea.
Anyway, the point is, this part of the planning process was stressful for me. I wanted to make sure there was enough for everyone but at the same time, I didn’t want to be wasteful.
I imagine a somewhat similar angst was felt by the disciples when Jesus asked them to feed the thousands of people gathered around him. You probably know the familiar story. We read it in all four gospels, and, actually, twice in Matthew and Mark - once with a crowd of 5,000 and another time with a crowd of 4,000. Looking at the story in Mark 6:34-44, we read,
“34 Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
35 Late in the afternoon his disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. 36 Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.” 37 But Jesus said, “You feed them.” “With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money[g] to buy food for all these people!” 38 “How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.” They came back and reported, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish.” 39 Then Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred.
41 Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share. 42 They all ate as much as they wanted, 43 and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftover bread and fish. 44 A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed.”
Again, this is most likely a familiar story, one we might often hear when learning about stewardship or maybe God’s provision. But in my own life, it’s recently resonated a bit more specifically when it comes to my time and energy. Let me explain.
Just this past week, if you’re listening in realtime, I officially became a student again. In fact, I received my official student ID in the mail, so yay for student discounts! For the next two years, I will be earning a masters degree in Christian Spiritual Formation and Leadership, which I know begs the question, what even is that? The best definition I’ve heard so far comes from Jeffrey Greenman:
“Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world.”
I’m sure I’ll be sharing more as time goes on, but the point is, my plate just got a bit more full. Suddenly, many hours of reading and writing for a masters program have been added to my to-do list each week. Now, hear me say I am so excited about all that I’m learning and not dreading it one bit, so it is definitely not a burden. In fact, it’s something I already consider a joy. But, as I’m sure you know, the joys in our lives often come with added responsibility and commitment. And I can feel the time and energy needed for all the good things in my life growing increasingly thin.
In a sense, I feel the way the disciples might have felt knowing there were over 5,000 mouths to feed and only five loaves of bread and two fish in hand. It seems like a tall order, an impossible task, an overwhelming scenario.
You probably know that same pressure well - maybe (probably) even better than I do. Deadlines piling up and inching closer. To-do lists growing longer. Responsibilities and commitments far outweighing the time and energy you seem to have.
Now, I do want to take a moment before we keep going to make a distinction. The kind of pressure I’m naming here is not necessarily the same kind of pressure we feel when we are pushing against our God-given limits. I still stand by what I said in Episode 15, that we are limited beings and healthy boundaries are important. There is a difference between doing something to please others or to make you feel better about yourself, and committing to something God is clearly calling you to. That being said, sometimes, the work God calls us to will stretch us and reveal that we ultimately rely on God.
So when the question, “How will I do it all and do it all well” arises, the first thing we find is that this story gently reminds us that we don’t. It isn’t about our accomplishing, finishing, or multi-tasking. It’s about God taking what we are able to offer - even if it isn’t perfect, ESPECIALLY when it isn't perfect - and using it in ways only God can. We are never the miracle worker. So for us, it isn’t necessarily about the accomplishing - it’s about the offering.
And maybe as we attempt to remain faithful to what God has called us to, our prayers might shift from, “God, help me get everything done,” to “God, take what little I feel like I have to offer, my seemingly inadequate loaves and fish, and turn it into more than it was before, more than I could do on my own.”
Second, we find a very practical tip within the details of this passage. The disciples bring the loaves and fish to Jesus, and Jesus then tells them to divide the thousands of people into smaller groups of 50 or 100. From there, each of these smaller groups are fed and taken care of, ultimately satisfying each and every one.
As we look to all that’s ahead, to all that might be piling up, perhaps the best approach is to break it down, divide it up, to take it one step at a time.
There’s another familiar story that echoes this approach, shared by author Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird. Anne writes,
“…my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Jesus showed the disciples this bird-by-bird approach. He knew how overwhelming and daunting God’s call could and would be sometimes - for himself, for his disciples, and even for us. So he puts his arm around us and shifts our perspectives, simplifies the call a bit, reminding us to just be faithful within our limits, with each and every small step.
Today, if you feel overwhelmed or burdened by all that’s on your plate, take a deep breath. Remember to simply offer the best you can right now. That is good enough for God to work with. May we remain faithful, even in the small calls, trusting that God will take those offerings and do what God does best.