Teacher or Learner?

I had a phone meeting on Tuesday with Tim Ferrell, a small groups pastor at a local church and staff member with the Navigators discipleship ministry.  He wanted some insight into how we do small groups at National Community Church.

I take calls like this all of the time.  Our pastor, Mark Batterson, is a well-known author and speaker, and by extension, we are a well-known church, the result of which is, people want to know how we do ministry.  The fact that people are interested in our small groups has little to do with my skills or abilities.  I'm really just in demand by association.

On most of these calls, I do a lot of talking, and the folks on the other end of the phone do a lot of listening, which makes sense, since they reached out because they wanted to learn more about how and why we do what we do.  In fact, I talk about our methods and models so much, I can almost do it in my sleep.

A few weeks ago I was interviewing a young woman who applied for a position with us.  She's finishing up a fellowship program with another church (her first post-college job) and looking for what's next.  During her interview she talked about something she's doing in her current role that we thought was a great idea and intend to replicate.

And this morning I was reading A Trip Around the Sun, in which Dick Foth writes:

Engage people and life ramps up. I can learn from anyone: a ninety-three-year-old or a three-year-old, a street sweeper or a scientist.  When I make a friend, I get smarter, when I make a friend, I get richer.

I consider myself someone who's willing to learn from anyone.  Some of our best ideas, such as our Small Group Expo, have come from volunteers and staff who report to me.  And I'd like to think that I'm quick to give credit where credit is due for those successes.

But Dick, Tim, and this young woman are teaching me a valuable lesson.

Tim is in his 50s or 60s and has been in vocational ministry longer than I've been alive.  The fact is that he knows way more about small groups than I do.  That he is not just willing to learn from someone half his age but actually sought out my advice speaks volumes about both his humility and his desire to learn.

While I've been willing to learn from anyone, I usually spend more time teaching and less time learning.  I'm starting to realize that I need to move beyond willingness and begin actively seeking to learn from every person, every interaction, and every conversation.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: What’s Next?

Wow, nine weeks, nine fruit.

I can honestly say it's been transformative. Not in that, "I'm a totally different person, and my life has radically changed" sense, but rather, my actions have actually been different.

I certainly haven't acted perfectly in every situation, but I did find myself saying, "I'm supposed to be patient, so I'm just going to relax and not stress out about this." "I'm supposed to be gentle, so I'm going to respond softly to this person."

Of course, the biggest danger when a spiritual growth plan comes to an end is failing to start a new one, to lose momentum and the ground gained.

So what's next?

Well, January 12-21 we're doing a corporate fast (details forthcoming) that will be a great way to set the tone for the year.

And of course, February 1 we'll start the Elements sermon series based on the fruit of the Spirit; begin our Bible reading plan centered on the fruit; and kick off the Elements small groups.

In terms of Scripture, I'm going to read through Luke and Acts this January. I figured it made sense following Christmas to read one of the Gospels, and Acts' focus on the work of the Holy Spirit will be good preparation for further reflection on the fruit of the Spirit.

If you haven't figured out where to go next in the Bible, I'd encourage you to join me in reading through Luke and Acts this January. In Luke, I'll be looking for where I see the fruit of the Spirit evident in Jesus' life, and in Acts I'll be watching for how the Holy Spirit works.

I'll also take the opportunity to encourage you to consider leading an Elements small group. If you've never led a group at NCC before, you can read more here, and for those of you who have, here are the registration instructions.

Thanks for joining us on this nine-week adventure with the Holy Spirit. I'm excited to see what He does with a church full of people seeking to live out the fruit of the Spirit, to model the character of Jesus. We're praying and believing that God will use this to continue His transformation of our neighborhoods, workplaces, and cities.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Self-Control

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Fall Leadership Summit—when the fruit of the Spirit challenge was initially issued—was nine weeks ago; our corporate Daniel fast earlier this year lasted ten days; most marathon training plans are 18 weeks; and a Masters’ degree program is rarely less than a year.

Spiritual, physical, and intellectual results all require daily self-control and many small choices between the beginning and the goal. As we come to the end of this challenge, I am thankful for moments of intimacy with Him, the opportunities to bless others, and the clarity that I’ve found in the practical application of Galatians 5:22-23.

But getting to this place requires daily decisions that I often overlook and fail to have the self-control to make. In hindsight, I am thankful for the prayer, journaling, and fasting of the last nine weeks. And while it hasn’t been a great season of life (I’ll spare you the details), God has been faithful.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Were there times where I pounded my fists and cried? Yup. Did I get frustrated and feel like I couldn’t do anything right or catch a break? More times than I’d like to admit. Have I been challenged by what I’m learning about His character and my shortcomings? Definitely. Have I grown spiritually? You bet.

So what if that was just the pre-game?

Let's continue to encourage each another to spend more time in His presence, to make small decisions like they are big ones, to use challenges as an opportunity to dig in rather than retreat, to live out the Scriptures in our daily lives, and to not become complacent with yesterday’s manna.

Game on.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Self-Control

It feels a little weird to be writing about self-control during the week of Christmas. Between all of those presents and Christmas ham—not to mention indulging in all of the hometown food—it doesn’t exactly seem like a season of self-control.

But then, thinking about it a little more, I realized that what we’re celebrating this week is probably the penultimate act of self-control. Almighty God; Creator of the universe; Source of all that is seen and unseen; the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent comes to earth as one of His creations, as a human, foregoing His power and position to walk among us.

Not only that, His purpose for doing so is to facilitate the ultimate act of self-control, the appropriation of our punishment for our rebellion on Himself.

This Christmas, let’s enjoy the merriment and festivities. It is a joyous season, a season for feasting not fasting. Christ the Savior is born!

But let us also look to the example of Jesus, let us lay down our rights, our right to be right. Let us engage our loved ones with self-control, biting our tongues, controlling our tempers, and showing the same love and grace Jesus showed, even when it is not received or understood.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Gentleness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Christine Caine made an assertion when introducing an individual Scripture passage: “The story starts where every story starts, before the story starts, and the story ends where every story ends, after the story ends.” Insomuch as we are involved in the stories of others, I think that loving them with a spirit of gentleness requires a similar acknowledgement.

I’ve struggled with putting my finger on how to conceptualize gentleness – seeking God for a strong, tangible illustration to share. But I was missing the lesson He was trying to teach me. Gentleness is found in the day to day and the moments that barely hit our radars.

I guess this means that I get to practice gentleness with my professional peer who doesn’t pull her weight and with the boy who was unknowingly hurtful in our last interaction. It means that He’s challenging me to practice gentleness in a way that recognizes that I’m involved in only a small part of each of their stories. Funny – I was kind of hoping for something that seemed more earth shattering since honestly I think that might be easier.

But the fact that opportunities to practice gentleness are so pervasive leads me to realize that in cultivating gentleness, I really can impact many others wherever they are in their stories.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Gentleness

A gentle answer turns away wrath

but a harsh word stirs up anger.

-King Solomon of Israel

Part of my job as a pastor is to occasionally tell people things that they don’t want to hear.

Let’s just say it’s not my favorite part of my job.

But it has taught me the value of gentleness. Even delivered without any particular edge or harshness, the truth can hurt, but an extra measure of gentleness soothes like salve on a wound.

Now I know pastors aren't the only people who have to do this. If you supervise employees, have kids, or want to be a true friend, sometimes you have to say things that people aren’t inclined to like.

I’ve found a couple of things help me to be more gentle.

One is humility, which comes from a profound awareness of my own fallenness—along with a recognition that I don’t know it all, don’t have all the answers, and could be missing something.

The other is love. Sure, love might mean speaking a hard truth.  But it isn’t love if our motivation is to put someone in their place, say “I told you so,” or assert our authority. If we speak out of love, if our heart is truly for the other person and wanting what is best for them, then we can speak gently.

Of course, the value of gentleness extends beyond just hard conversations. A gentle spirit towards an overworked waiter, a frustrated customer, or an angry spouse can work wonders and be a light that points them toward Jesus.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Faithfulness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

In his book, Finding My Way Home, Henri Nouwen talks about active waiting being a move not from nothing to something but from something to something more. He writes that a waiting person is someone who is present to the moment and believes that this moment is the moment. So often I get so distracted by what I think I see on the horizon that I lose the opportunities of the moment. Living out faithfulness has challenged me that in the midst of whatever I’m waiting for, I need to be fully present in the moment.

And guess what? When I am spending time in His Word and in prayer, I notice opportunities to be faithful and situations where He chooses to use me. I’ve taken several impromptu trips to Boston to hug a friend who recently lost her mom and had the chance to bless my parents with various trips around the country. I’ve cultivated lasting friendships with colleagues due to “chance” seating arrangements and collaboration on what seems like thankless projects.

If it had been up to me, I would have long since settled down with a "permanent roommate," and my current life would look much more “normal” for someone who will turn thirty-three on Monday. But being faithful requires me to embrace this moment – spiritually, professionally, personally, relationally, and athletically – and to be faithful in the opportunities each and every moment brings.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Faithfulness

The depth of your impact is determined by the duration of your investment.

I get bored with stuff after about 18 months. Jobs, hobbies, whatever. After 18 months, I’ve kinda figured it out, looked it over, and I’m ready for what’s next.

About a year-and-a-half after coming on board at NCC I got a call about a job opportunity from a friend of mine. It was a similar role to the one I was in, but it was at a much larger church, and there was a good chance I could get a promotion within six months.

It was an agonizingly difficult decision. Bigger organization, more responsibility, and I’m guessing I would have made more money, but as Rachel and I prayed and fasted, we felt God calling us to stay right where we were.

That experience taught me a lesson I’ll never forget: the depth of your impact is determined by the duration of your investment. There is something about pressing through, about going deeper, going further, about being faithful, that leaves a mark.

Faithfulness breeds trust, and trust breeds strong relationships. This, of course, has qualitative impact on the people nearest us, but it also has a quantitative impact. When you’ve been around a job for a while, you’re able to get things done that you can’t when you’re new. You get a longer leash, more latitude; people buy in to your ideas more easily because you’ve already proven yourself. This in turn increases your level of productivity.

Faithfulness also allows us to move from aptitude to excellence. We rarely achieve excellence in the short term. Sure we may be a good friend, a good employee, a good musician, but only a long term investment in a person, a position, or a passion will allow us to be a great friend, a great employee, a great musician.

It’s really tough to practice faithfulness for a week. Faithfulness inherently takes a lot longer than seven days. So this week, let’s ask God if there are any areas where we know we are called to be faithful but haven’t been acting faithfully. Let’s ask Him if there are any places where we’re looking for a change but He is calling us to be faithful. And let’s ask Him for the strength to remain faithful.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Reflections on Goodness

This is a guest post by Susannah Cafardi, NCC Barracks Row Saturday Small Group Director.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
-Galatians 6:9-10

I tried to live this out this past Thanksgiving weekend. On the upside, I had plenty of opportunities to be a blessing to those around me. There were diapers to change, dishes to wash, babies to carry, and photos to take. My parents were thrilled, and my brother was thankful. I found that looking for opportunities to bless others really can be fun and can make great memories. But, I had moments where I really struggled with my attitude, and I came home exhausted. I realized that I had walked into the weekend with self-centered desires and I hadn’t carved out sufficient quiet time (well, at least not until the buildup of sniffly toddlers, sleeping on the floor, a few social curveballs, and seven people and two cats under one roof dropped me to my knees).

While I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to serve, I hope I learned a valuable lesson. Doing good without becoming weary can only be accomplished when I am releasing my desires for acknowledgement and attention and I am not forgoing time in the Word and in prayer just because I’ve become focused on performing good actions.

Fruit of the Spirit Challenge: Thoughts on Goodness

I’ve struggled to write about goodness more than any of the other fruit. It seems so simple, so self-explanatory. Who can’t hear their mom’s voice echoing in their head, “Be good.” Every kid knows what it means and knows when they haven’t been.

Paul tells us that even people who have no explicit knowledge of God know right from wrong, that God has wired us to know this.

But perhaps there’s a bit more to “being good” than what we thought about as children.

When mom said, “Be good,” she usually meant, “Don’t do anything wrong.”

But being good is also about doing what is right.

When I think about goodness, I think about the person who goes back to the store clerk to apologize for being rude, the person who comes clean to their boss when they screw up, the person who serves and gives when it is inconvenient.

Now I want to be careful here because following Jesus has far too often been turned into following a list of “don’ts.” And other times we turn it into a list of “dos.”

The fact is that we aren’t and can’t be good enough for God. And we can’t be too bad for God.

Without the blood of Jesus all of our goodness is as filthy rags, but with the blood of Jesus there’s nothing that can separate us from God.

Goodness isn’t about earning our salvation. Quite the contrary: our goodness is a response to God’s grace. It is the fruit of having the Spirit of God living in us, of seeking after and pursuing God through prayer, meditation, fasting, and even simply inviting God into our everyday actions.