Wendy and I are entering week three of a modified fast where we're taking nutrition but not eating solid foods.
It's tempting to confuse fasting as a hunger strike, but we shouldn't ever relate to it that way. We don't go without food (or other necessities) in order to twist God's arm.
I relate to fasting as a demonstrated prayer that "we want this more than food itself." I crave real food right now. But for every meal that I go without food, it is a reminder of what I crave more than food itself. For me, I am craving God's blessing. I believe he wants to do something new among us, and I don't want us to miss it. I crave that, so that's the focus of my prayer and fasting.
Is there anything you crave so much that you want it more than food itself? Turn it into a prayer and amplify it with a fast, going without something for a period of time as a demonstrated prayer.
Call to Prayer: Monday, October 26, at 7pm
Two weeks ago we entered a season of prayer. We're devoting six Monday nights to prayer throughout the months of October, November, and December. Tonight is the second.
If you're near Sarasota, come into the auditorium at 4041 Bahia Vista Street.
If you can't come in person, join our hosted meeting at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
Both start at 7pm.
What to Expect
Like last time, this will not be a time to take turns praying publicly. There's a time and place for that. But tonight is a time to gather in one room together and to pray to God personally, together at the same time.
Some will pray quietly.
Some will pray out loud together.
Some will type in the chat room online.
Some will wander through the room.
Some will silently read the chats, agreeing where they are.
Some will bow tenderly in one of the pews.
Some will write in their journal.
Some will leaf through their Bible.
Some will find a corner somewhere to lie prostrate before the Lord.
Some will sing a song of worship quietly between them and the Lord.
And all will pray and be heard by God.
Who is this for?
Anyone who cares about Sarasota Community Church. If you want it to be for you, it is for you.
But specifically, I am asking all members of SCC to devote time to prayer in this season. I believe these prayers are setting up something new among us. Whatever that means, let it be in answer to the prayers of those of us who have linked arms in membership, praying the prayer of faith.
The reality is that in most churches, most Sunday morning attenders don't attend separate prayer meetings. There are all sorts of reasons for that. But my hope is that everyone attends at least one of the six prayer meetings either in person or online. And if two or three of us (or twenty or thirty of us) are seeking the Lord together, that's enough. (Matthew 18:19-20 NIV)
What are we being asked to pray for?
God's leading. I wrote about it two weeks ago so, rather than rewrite it, I'll just ask you to reread it.
Then, tonight, the following questions will again be on the screen to help focus our thoughts as we discern God's leading:
See you tonight.
Yesterday I wrapped up a three part series on the Spiritual Wilderness, or the Spiritual Desert, and how it tempts us in three areas: the appetites, the anxieties, and the ambitions.
I taught about it as it applies to each of us personally. But it applies to us as a congregation too.
I pointed out in my teachings that it wasn't the devil who led Jesus into the wilderness. He was actually "led by the Spirit." And I believe that's not just because it was Jesus. I believe it is true for us too. Personally, and communally.
Nothing comes our way without God's permission. We accept that easily enough when it means living with the consequences of our own actions. (At least after our initial objection.) But it's a hard pill to swallow when it's the consequences of other people's actions. Nevertheless, we have no other confidence that this, that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)
If we love him, we know that whatever we are experiencing has a redemptive outcome, whether we caused the hardship or not.
And we don't have to like it. We just have to trust God in it. And we have to continue to love him through it. And we have to continue to be called according to his purpose.
This invites us to submit to him in all things.
The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness because of their disobedience. But they didn't enter the wilderness because of disobedience. In fact, they were led by the Spirit into the wilderness as escape from captivity! By God's mighty hand they were miraculously delivered from Egypt, and marched straight out into the wilderness! And there, in the desert, they were given an opportunity to prove that they would trust God when God was all they had.
But they failed the test.
Not only did they grumble about not having enough to eat and drink, they feared the people of the Promised Land and refused to go in.
Don't miss that.
We read in Numbers 13 that God walked them through the wilderness right up to the Promised Land, and said, "Go in and take it!" But they cowered in fear. They refused. They were disobedient to the Lord's command. And so they were assigned a nomadic life in the wilderness for 40 years, so that the unfaithful could receive the inheritance of their disbelief -- the consequences of their inaction.
I believe God's deliverance usually leads us from captivity into some sort of Spiritual Desert.
We initially experience a miraculous deliverance of feeling forgiven and to some degree being filled with his Holy Spirit. But this deliverance always comes by way of repentance where we walk out of captivity, leaving familiar things behind -- things we used to enjoy in abundance.
We lose friends. We lose coping mechanisms. We experience the brokenness of other people who suffered because of our sins, and we feel remorse. We wish we could take it back, but we just have to live with it. And sometimes even the sin habits that miraculously disappeared can start to grow back as our initial zeal begins to fade.
Know this: The desert is part of God's deliverance!
There in the wilderness, where our only abundance is day-to-day provisions, God is testing us to see whether we will trust him! Every detail of this desert experience may not be directly caused by our disobedience, but every detail of it is there to teach us obedience!
The wilderness is a strategic part of God's redemption process whereby he is causing "all things to work together for good."
It is a grace. And grace teaches us. (Titus 2:12)
When we submit to God and to learning from grace, we find provision, even if day to day. But when we fail the test by giving in to doubt, and refusing to trust God, we find ourselves in the desert for an extended period of time.
I don't believe this is God being petty or vindictive. I believe it's God being gracious! His desire is to give us his best, and his best is holiness and righteousness. And it is in the desert experience where we are tested and purified, where we learn holiness and righteousness.
Again, this should be applied personally, but I want us to consider what it means for us as a congregation too.
Yes, 2020 is a spiritual desert for each of us, but it is for all of us too: God's Church! As I have called us to prayer and invited us to labor for what will be, please consider what this spiritual desert experience means for us as a congregation. We are being tested.
If we are together in this spiritual desert, how will we respond?
You heard me say it over and over again: "Every temptation is a test of your trust."
This desert experience called 2020 is testing our trust by giving temptation an opportunity to magnify our appetites, anxieties, and ambitions. Will God provide for us? Will God protect us? Will God fulfill his promises for us? Or will he let us starve? Will he let us die? Will he let us fail?
Thanks to all of you who continue to support the church financially. Because of you, this is not an appeal for provision, it's an appeal for participation in prayer to discern God's leading for the next season of our life together.
Next Monday night, October 26, we will have our second prayer night of this season of prayer. (Every 2nd and 4th Monday of the month for October, November, and December.) As you prepare yourself for that, please spend time reflecting prayerfully on these questions:
Those are complex questions, I know. Take a few minutes right now; grab a notebook or prayer journal, or even just the closest piece of paper you can find, and jot down a few thoughts about that. Whatever comes to mind. And then devote time in the coming days to pray about it.
The reason I ask is because these are the things the pastoral team and overseers are working through and they absolutely affect our life together as a church. We do not want to miss God's leading in this season. We do not want to fail the test. And we do not want to only discern these things ourselves. So we are asking you to pray with us about these things.
I'll have more to say next week I'm sure. For this week, pray.
With faith, hope, and love,
Tonight we meet for prayer in the sanctuary at 7pm. It's the first of six special prayer meetings called by the overseers and ministry team.
We'll meet the 2nd and 4th Mondays of October, November and December. If you can meet in person at 4041 Bahia Vista Street, please do. If you can't, please join others online at the same time.
This is a call for the core of our church to gather in prayer. And you get to decide whether you're the core or not.
Why are we praying?
I believe this "wilderness experience" of 2020 is a time of purification and testing to humble us and to see what's in our hearts. And for us to make the most of it, we need to be in prayer.
In my teachings the past couple weeks, I've said that in the desert experience we learn to rely on God to provide and to protect. I have been focusing on how it applies to each of us personally. But I want us to also consider how it applies to us as a congregation and as a ministry.
We have some serious decisions in front of us. No emergencies. No fires to put out. Nothing to vote on. Nothing urgent, just important decisions about opportunities regarding our future as a congregation.
When we shut down the programming of the church for the pandemic, my concern was that as soon as it was over we'd just go back to whatever we were doing before Covid. The other way to say that is, I was afraid we wouldn't learn anything in the wilderness. I was afraid we'd come out no different than we went in.
I mean that about us as a congregation, but also the larger Church.
And, lo and behold, many pastors and churches across the U.S. seem to be focusing their efforts on protecting their right to assemble. And yes, I think the right to assemble is a good thing; we take advantage of that.
But while many are fighting to keep from losing what they had, a number of pastors like myself are eager to see the Church take hold of something we haven't yet had -- or at least haven't had in a long, long time.
We see this as opportunity and we don't want to miss it.
It is, by nature, a less public conversation. And by nature, larger churches are less nimble, and they have more to lose in the conversation. Nevertheless, I've seen even some large churches start to role out plans about new ways of being church. And many of the private person-to-person conversations are filled with conviction and desire around a scary and exciting question that's difficult to raise publicly.
But here it is:
What if there's a better way to be Church?
I've written about the difference between doing church and being church. I've spoke about the four devotions we should be gathering around. There's certainly way more to say about that, but I'm not going to try to say it here.
My hope here is to keep the conversation going and to call us to prayer around it. I believe God is inviting us to consider what his Church should look like as we emerge from 2020 -- and what role our congregation should play in that.
I said at the beginning of this year that the prior ten years was a season of laying to rest what was, and that 2020 would be a year of giving to birth what would be. I had no idea the labor would be so long and difficult.
I'm reminded of what Jesus said in John 16:21, "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world." I relate to that with regard to this season of labor. And I believe that what this season gives birth to will replace the anguish with joy -- if we give don't give up.
We are in labor. I believe the whole world is in labor of sorts. Certainly the Lord's Church is in labor as it seeks to give new birth to those whose hearts haven't yet heard the gospel.
But I also feel like our congregation is in labor. And we don't yet know what we are giving birth to.
Will it be a new way of being Church? Or will it look a lot like what we've been? It's yet to be seen. But if God is in it, what we give birth to will be the right thing.
But right now we are in labor, and the labor is prayer.
I wrote last week that the call to prayer is like Gideon calling his warriors to get a drink. Honestly, everyone knows that when you call a church to prayer, less than 10% show up. But God used less than 1% of Gideon's army to work a miracle.
Today, I'm saying the call to prayer is like the birthing mother's urge to push.
We're feeling the urge to push. It's time to pray. Perhaps God is even calling some of us to a season of fasting. We may be tired already, but when you're in labor, you have to go through with it.
I believe we are in labor, and the labor we're being called to is prayer.
What should we pray?
I'll put questions on the screen tonight to help us in our thought process, but the goal is simply to pray however God leads us. We are praying to listen to God, to hear from God. Prepare your heart around the following questions:
As we pray tonight I want us all to pray as we are led. We won't take turns praying. There won't be open mics. We won't be sharing prayer requests. We'll just be gathering in the same room to pray to God at the same time.
If one person prays out loud so that those who are near them can hear and agree, wonderful. If another bows silently, praying to God in their heart, beautiful. If one lies prostrate before God with their arms stretched out, amen. And if another wanders around the room with their arms raised high, hallelujah.
We are gathering to pray. We are in labor.
See you tonight.
If the spiritual desert teaches us to rely on God, the season of dryness and uncertainty calls us to pray.
Next week will be seven months since life as we knew it was interrupted by Covid19. As I explained yesterday, many of us find ourselves in a season of dryness, like a "spiritual desert." I believe this spiritual wilderness is being experienced not just personally, but communally, in a way I've never experienced in my lifetime.
As I've said often in many ways, this is an opportunity for renewal.
Last week I wrote that God is calling us to a season of prayer. Today I am inviting us as a church to gather for prayer. (Details at the end.) And I want to set that up with an analogy that you might not like, but I hope you love.
I've been thinking lately about Gideon.
In many ways 2020 feels like that Gideon moment when God weakened Israel's army so that he could prove his own strength. I believe God is weakening things the Church has thought were strong so he can renew our confidence that "when we are weak, he is still strong."
Yeah, that needs unpacking.
In the book of Judges, chapter 6, a man named Gideon is called by God to save the Israelites from the Midianites who are oppressing them.
In chapter 7, Gideon readies his army to attack but the Lord tells him (verses 2-3), “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’ Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave...’ ”
So Gideon does that and 22,000 men leave. That's a lot of men! But he still has an army of 10,000. I mean, it's not much compared to the enemy (their camels alone are too many to count). But at least it's something to work with.
And then the Lord says, verse 4, “There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will thin them out for you there. If I say, ‘This one shall go with you,’ he shall go; but if I say, ‘This one shall not go with you,’ he shall not go.”
Yes: "thin them out."
He chooses a seemingly arbitrary method. He calls the troops down to the water. He tells Gideon to watch how the men drink. If they kneel down and drink straight from the water, send them home. If they cup the water in their hands, keep them.
Out of the remaining 10,000 men, 9,700 kneel!
Only 300 drink from their hands!
And God tells him, “With the three hundred men...I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.”
And with that, the army that started out as 32,000 soldiers is thinned out to 300! God has reduced Gideon's army to less than 1% of what he had started with! But God is in this, and Gideon is determined to obey him in it.
He sent home 31,700 soldiers and left Gideon with an army of 300 -- literally "something," but for every reasonable consideration, it was nothing. It was only enough to blow some trumpets on cue, and crash some clay jars with torches in them. You can read the story for yourself in Judges 7 but (spoiler alert) God wins the battle for them against all odds. He routs the enemy, sending them scattered in every direction, killing each other as they go.
So that's the original Gideon moment.
To treat the story fairly, we need to acknowledge that this wasn't normal. And it didn't become normal. Like, they didn't conclude from this that "from now on 300 is the right size of an army." Israel went on to have decent sized armies.
And yet, at that time and for his expressed purpose, God chose to reduce the size of Gideon's army to make a point that, even when he invites us to be part of the solution, it is God who saves us, not we ourselves.
I have been living with an inner witness that started out as an inner question, like a pondering. But I'm pretty sure of it now.
This isn't popular to say, but I have to say it: I believe God is thinning out the Church.
Please hear me: I'm not saying he's getting rid of people. Don't let that offense set in.
What I'm saying is that he's getting rid of misplaced confidences. At least he wants to. And this is our opportunity to see him work. But what are those misplaced confidences?
I believe the confidences of the American Church are strategies, systems, and solutions. We rely on strategies to bring people to faith, and systems for getting them plugged into the church, we look to therapeutic solutions for eliminating sin, and now (increasingly) political solutions for eradicating evil.
These all have their place, but they're simply no match for the kingdom of darkness.
We have been waging war with the world's weapons -- weapons that do not have divine power to demolish strongholds. We have forgotten the encouragement of 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds."
And so, I look at the Church's vast array of strategies, systems, and solutions, and I see Gideon's army of 32,000 going up against Midian. For years we've been busy polishing our strategies, sharpening our systems, and rehearsing our solutions, believing that if we do these things well, we have a chance at winning this war!
But this year Covid19 sent "two-thirds" home. Our "large gathering" strategies were canceled by governors. Our "small group" systems were dismantled by a virus. Our therapeutic solutions proved ineffective against addiction and suicide. And now many in the Church have turned their attention all the more to political solutions. What we had relied on has failed us, but at least we still have "one-third". It may just be politics, but at least it's something. We may have lost "twenty-two thousand" but at least we still have "ten thousand."
At least we still have politics, right? And God will surely cause our strategies, systems, and solutions to be effective again, right?
None of these things will win the war against the kingdom of darkness!
While there does seem to be some statistical correlation, I mean the following figuratively: The Church has lost "two-thirds" to fear, or disinterest, or lack of engagement. Perhaps they realized they weren't really into what the church was offering. Covid gave them an easy out. They were sent home.
We now have "one-third" left, and we're tempted to muster the troops. We figure, at least it's something.
But what if God is calling us down to the water?
Wow, let that sink in for a bit.
What if God is calling us down to the water?
I believe what he is calling us to is prayer. And I want everyone to come pray. But I am actually not concerned about how many come to pray.
I am okay if God wants to reduce the "army" of our confidences to 1% of what it was. Even if the "confidence" is large crowds.
I say that because I believe he wants to do something way bigger, way more significant than just having a large "army," or a large church, or a political win.
I believe he wants to teach us a new confidence that far exceeds strategies, systems, and solutions. I believe he wants to actually rout the enemy.
And I believe prayer is the battle field. And I believe it is going to be there that we break our jars and raise our torches as we sound our trumpets and send the enemy into panic.
As you prepare to pray, read Judges 7:17ff and let God give you understanding.
Here's the call to prayer:
Monday, October 12th at 7pm, in the sanctuary.
And if you're not able to join us in person, gather with two or more people wherever you are.
I believe God is calling us into a season of prayer.
I suppose that's obvious. If you've been listening to what I've been saying the past six months, I have in various ways called us to be face down before God about the disruption of things we've found meaningful in the past.
I hope it's obvious. And yet it still needs to be said.
This past weekend a whole bunch of people gathered in D.C. to pray. To pray is to worship. To petition God is to worship. To call out to God is to worship. To make our appeal to him is to worship.
This is beautiful. I pray that it's a tender witness to those how oppose us, and more than simply another political demonstration.
Here in our "war torn" country, where it seems we're facing an insurmountable division of values and ideology, we should thank God that a group of Christians was able to meet peaceably in our country's capitol to pray. And not just pray to some higher power, but to declare through all manner of explicit and implicit statements that "Jesus is Lord."
Let's continue to pray for the healing of this land.
And with this post I am.
Even if it brings a challenge with it.
Yesterday I asked the question, "Can prayer change reality?" And I answered that question by saying "Prayer is the reality." (If you didn't hear it or want to review it in a more succinct form, you can watch the stand alone sermon here)
We are those who pray.
Prayer is our reality. It is perhaps the most elementary expression of faith. And yet, in my experience, that expression of faith does not always come from a place of understanding.
In my study time this morning I read Isaiah 1. The whole chapter is worthy of our attention, but I want to highlight verses 15-20 here:
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
He goes on:
"Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.”
It's important that we don't see America as God's Israel. The prophet Isaiah wasn't writing to American Christians about how to keep America Christian. He wasn't writing about America at all. He was writing about Israel. But we can and should apply it in principle to any country we live in. (As I've said elsewhere, we are the "Kingdom within the kingdoms we're in.")
Today, as I mull over my morning reading of Isaiah 1, and yesterday's teaching on prayer, and the weekend's national gathering for prayer, I carry a burden that I know isn't popular to say, but am convicted that it needs to be said nonetheless.
We live in a country whose "hands are full of blood."
This is not some anti-patriotism rant. Nor is it a statement against "the other political party." In fact, this is the echo of any among us who devote themselves to seeking justice against all violence and wrong-doing. This is a lament on behalf of our country.
We all know there are law breakers among us who kill their victims. We lament that but it's obvious.
More disturbing is that there are law keepers among us whose hands are full of blood -- the blood of their enemies and the blood of their unborn babies. We must lament both.
And even more disturbing is that we have law makers calling it good.
God says to "Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow."
God's heart grieves wrongdoing, injustice, oppression, and apathy about those who need our help. He calls it "blood." And he says that he can't hear past the blood on our hands: "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you...I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!"
(Are you uncomfortable with the political overtones of this? Is not God "uncomfortable" that we hear it as being political and not about being faithful?)
God is rebuking us. Tenderly.
But not delicately.
His heart is tender. He is not saying, "You're dead to me." He's saying, "Live to me! Turn to me!" He's saying, "You need to know this! I can't hear your prayers because your hearts are so duplicitous! You are so filled with hatred for others and love for yourselves!"
And he says that to invite us! He says, "Wash and make yourselves clean! Do that and I will hear you!"
We pray for our land as we should. And even if it's not always God's will that we be healthy and wealthy, I do believe it's true that, "if [we] are willing and obedient, [we] will eat the good things of the land."
We should desire that.
Because it's also true that, "if [we] resist and rebel, [we] will be devoured by the sword."
And we should try to avoid that.
As Christian Americans it's popular to mobilize around the promise of scripture that, "If we will just pray, God will heal our land!" This is good, but let's remember the full challenge of that promise. It was spoken by God to Solomon after he finished the Temple. It's recorded in 2 Chronicles 7:13-16.
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there."
And even if America is not the "new Israel," scripture tells us that the Church is the new temple. And we must be those who gather as the "temple" of the Holy Spirit to pray. And we must be those who gather not in boasting but in humility, and not in posturing but repentance as we turn from every wicked way.
We are those who pray, but let us not be those who only say our prayers.
Our country's future is uncertain.
Our past is heavier than we expected.
Our present is filled with tension and violence.
This calls us to a season of prayer -- and let it be nothing less than a season of humility and repentance.
Are the prayers you're praying the kind that can be prayed on your knees face down without a single boast? Keep praying those prayers. And would the prayers you're praying be magnified and emboldened by a confession of your own sin rather than merely confessing the sins of those who hate you? Keep praying those prayers.
But if your heart is in any way aligned with those whose hands are full of blood, "Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." (2 Corinthians 6:17)
We are those who pray. Let us be those who live in humility and repentance, before God, but also in front of those who oppose us. I believe this is the heart and mind of God for us in this time.
"Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves." (Romans 14:22)
Yesterday we reopened our campus for worship. It was nice.
Of course not everyone could attend in person, and then our streaming platform had tech issues, so I wanted to bring everyone up to speed.
I spoke on "What Most People (Still) Get Wrong About Worship." If you didn't get to see it or want to review it, you can watch the whole service here, or watch the stand alone teaching in a more succinct format here.
The message is dear to my heart, and it influenced a decision I made to reverse our worship service. That's what I want to explain here.
After Mike Christner welcomed us, I introduced the topic of my sermon, and then led everyone in the doxology.
Usually the doxology is sung at the end of the service as a response. It concludes with a distinctive "Ahhhhhhhmennnnnn!" I actually like it there, but yesterday we started with it. I wanted to jar our thinking a bit, and remind us of this truth that all worship is response.
So after singing the doxology, I talked about how most people still relate to worship with misunderstanding. And the biggest misunderstanding is this:
"Worship isn't for you; Worship is from you."
I opened scripture and told about my unique perspective as someone who has spent countless hours on a stage making music in front of countless crowds of people, both in secular settings, and in church settings.
I confessed my own complicity as a pastor who has made decisions that turned the worship service into a show, and inadvertently taught people that worship is for them.
I talked about marital intimacy as a powerful metaphor of Christian worship. Not sure I've ever heard that illustration before. At least not in church.
And I told about how when I recently prayed for God to light me on fire with inspiration and zeal, he answered by reminding me of a tiki torch fail from several years ago. I said that if you're relying on worship services to light you on fire, and all you're getting is a few sparks with a little warm glow that dies out during the week, you're probably dealing with a wick that saturated with the wrong things.
I won't reteach the message here. I'm just asking you to lean into it. I really don't want it to be a "one and done" message. It must become who we are. (Like I say, if you haven't heard it yet, stop reading this and go spend 20 minutes with it here.)
So yesterday I spent time baring my heart and mind about what we tend to get wrong in worship. Then I invited everyone to pray. And we just took time to pray.
As I've taught recently from Acts 2:42, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."
So we prayed.
Then we sang.
And it was tender.
When Wendy and I talked about it at home, I told her I wasn't as tired as I usually am after a Sunday morning. That's when I realized that I had been relaxed all morning. I had experienced no anxiety about whether people would like our worship and stay or get bored and leave. I just wanted to open scripture to increase our understanding. I just wanted to call us all to worship as a responsive love. And I just wanted to create space for us to pray and become tender before the Lord. And to do it together.
And that's what happened. Amen.
This week we're going to keep the reversed order. We're going to start with the doxology. Come ready to worship God as response. Just don't come thinking it's for you. Come remembering it is from you.
I mentioned above how God answered my prayer. I don't always hear word for word from God. But this was pretty clear to me, and I believe it's not just for me, so I'll leave it here for you to consider.
This is from my prayer journal. I prayed:
“Lord, restore unto me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Cause your fire of inspiration and zeal to fall from heaven and baptize me anew.”
And God answered me:
“Have I not allowed your life to become dry for this purpose? How can you wick the pure oil of my anointing when you are dripping in the synthetic anointings of this world and its patterns? But I am taking your feet out of that. And I already have. But do not be afraid of the desert. I can bring refreshment from a rock and nourishment from the morning dew. Can I not put a roof over your head, even one with a million stars?
"My fire fell and filled the temple. It also fell and danced on the heads of my disciples, my new temple! But today my fire falls on wet wicks. It ignites a few hairs and you get excited. But I want you to become all flame!”
Like I say, that message is not only for me, it is for all who are listening. And I invite you to contemplate it as we allow God to refine our worship together. Who will we become?
As we explore a "reversed" worship service, let it reverse your thinking: Worship is a response. It's not for us. It's from us.
We were one of the first churches to close when news of the pandemic began to coalesce. Given the information we were hearing, and the size and demographic of our winter crowd, it was the responsible decision.
We closed for ten weeks. But then we were one of the first churches in Sarasota to re-open.
Then after five weeks, the Florida Surgeon General requested again that people limit gatherings over 50 so we closed again.
Other churches started opening soon after that. We didn't. And now, after nine weeks, most of the churches around us have been open for weeks. I don't know actual numbers but it seems we are one of the last to reopen.
I want to give clarity about that.
My heart all along has been to cooperate with those who bear the burden of leading our city and state, that their service might be a joy and not a burden.
This is an application of scripture's mandate about following our church leaders, but I believe in principle it applies to all leaders: "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you." (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
Likewise, as one charged with making decisions that affect this church, I want to carry out that responsibility with diligence.
As I said last week, I don't believe there is a right or wrong decision about whether churches meet in person or not. I am confident that meeting in homes is not disobedient to scripture's call to not forsake meeting together.
In fact, it's possible that our preference for gathering somewhere other than our homes is more akin to forsaking meeting together.
But that's another post. :)
That said, most of us miss gathering don't we? I miss seeing you. I miss singing together with you. I miss the encouragement of just being together with you. At the very least we miss our memories of what it used to be like to get together.
And yet, if you were one of the 90 or so who met again for those five weeks in May and June, you likely remember how conflicted your feelings were.
There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm for meeting again, but there was some sorrow and timidity in meeting again.
Part of that is just a natural response to what social distancing does. Yeah, we all know that social distancing is manufactured -- that it's not really an indication about whether people like us or not -- but still, we learned at a young age how to respond when people keep their distance from us. We keep our distance from them. Physically. Emotionally. We shrink back. We become quiet. We avoid eye contact. We fade away.
It's hard to meet joyfully when we can't engage each other socially.
Now, I don't want to overcommit on that. There was joy. We even met new people who started coming to our church because we were one of the first to reopen. Wonderful people.
But many who I was hoping to see stayed home for the obvious reasons.
As I've said, we'll reopen again. But it's been my desire that when we do meet again I want it to be with joy. I want the room to buzz with enthusiasm, not hum with uncertainty.
I'm still looking for the right timing on that.
Part of that is I don't want to be "yes and then no." I don't want to just follow whatever opinion is trending on social media, riding the waves of public opinion up and down, back and forth, starting and stopping, herking and jerking. It's important to me that we be a non-anxious presence in this. Also, that we don't "condemn ourselves by what we approve."
And so, the staff's counsel is that we wait and pay attention to what happens when our local schools reopen. So far it has not been without challenges for Manatee public schools, as well as our own Sarasota Christian School.
But they are meeting, and we are watching. And almost all of the people have not gotten sick.
And next week we'll be watching the Sarasota County Schools to see what happens. Not anxiously. Just trying to learn. And I personally believe that almost all of the people will not get sick. That's my own personal bias.
But all that said, an underlying consideration for me in keeping our campus closed has been a spiritual sense that it is serving a purpose unique to our congregation in a way that has nothing to do with the virus.
Like I said here,
and one more (the one where I said the church is closed for good) here.
And so we continue to pray for God to move among us. Again, this isn't as much to do with the virus, as it is about what God wants to do among us.
Join me in praying this simple prayer: "Lord, what would you have us learn during this time?"
And lean into yesterday's teaching where I explained four things we need to be devoting ourselves to. It totally applies to this larger conversation. Take 19 minutes to watch it again here.
But I'm also sensing that it's time to gather for worship, even if it's not yet time to gather weekly for worship, so...
We are planning a special evening service for extended worship, prayer, communion, and inspiration: Saturday, September 5th, at 6pm.
It's Labor Day Weekend. Let's plan to worship together and encourage each other as part of our festivities.
Mark your calendars. (But mark it in pencil. All plans are in pencil these days. See above.)
My heart is that we would gather to encourage and strengthen each other. What do you think? Good idea? You in?
When I see Christian leaders demanding their right to gather publicly as if it's a fundamental necessity, I'm a bit embarrassed.
I'm partly embarrassed to be associated with what I believe is a short-sighted view of worship. But more poignantly, I'm embarrassed for how it sounds to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where meeting publicly isn't even an option. I would venture that for them to meet at all is considerably more faithful than for us to exercise our rights by having an outdoor praise concert, or an open door sermon in our building.
This isn't to say I'm against meeting publicly, or opening our buildings. Not at all. I'm personally good with meeting. In fact, we're planning to have a night of worship coming up here shortly and I'm really looking forward to it.
But for a variety of reasons I haven't opened SCC to regular gatherings yet. And I must admit the awkwardness: while we are voluntarily doing church online in a state where we have permission to meet onsite, people in other states are willing to go to jail over not being allowed to meet onsite. Here we are, saying, "Let's just meet online for a time," and there they are, saying, "It is fundamentally necessary for us to meet onsite!"
I'm not picking a fight with anyone. And I understand the concern about losing our American rights. I get that. But that's not the conversation I'm having here. My concern is bigger than that.
I believe the increased emphasis on demanding our right to "do church" is reinforcing an already weakened view of what it means to "be Church."
Gathering publicly is about doing church. But no law can keep us from being Church.
We need to stop focusing on doing church and start focusing on being Church.
Again, I don't want to be misunderstood here. Gathering publicly is a wonderful privilege. I'm thankful for it. Let's meet publicly whenever we can. And, as American citizens, let's be good stewards of the voice democracy gives us in helping lead the country. I personally cast my own vote towards freedom whenever I can. But let's not hold up the Constitution and Bill of Rights as authoritative commentaries on scripture. It is not holy writ.
(I've taught about Kingdom allegiance recently, so I'll refrain from saying more here.)
But isn't it interesting that prior to Covid, we who are now willing to fight for our right to worship, increasingly exercised that as the right to not worship? Or the right to worship on our own, whenever we felt like it?
I was talking with a school teacher recently who said that people used to view education as a privilege and so they were willing to work very hard for it. But now they see it as a right, so they give up as soon as it gets hard.
When we see worship as a right, we stop seeing it as a privilege.
We give up on worship easily because we just want it to be easy. And apparently "easy" means "when I'm not tired" or "when I don't have something else to do" or "when I'm tired of being cooped up in my home during a government mandated shut-in."
For decades, worship attendance in the U.S. has been declining across the board. Many "regular church goers" go half of the time. Some would say monthly is all the connection they need. Some stopped going to church in person years ago and only watch online. And some don't even watch online.
For those of us (like myself) who are at church if the doors are open, it feels like they've left the faith, doesn't it? But the reality is, some still read their Bibles daily and have spiritual fellowship with others organically. Some have a very active prayer life and devote themselves to serving people in need, while being directed by portions of scripture they memorized a long time ago.
What do you think about that? Can you be a good Christian and not go to Church every week? No doubt you have an opinion. And now that we've all "skipped church" multiple weeks in a row, I wonder if your opinion has changed. Does going to church make us the Church?
Let's be clearheaded about this.
Gathering publicly is not fundamentally necessary to gathering in Jesus' name.
All throughout the world, Christians gather privately and faithfully in Jesus' name. And the power of God is there in their midst.
No gawking media.
No demonstration of rights.
No social media posts being shared.
No publicity of any kind.
No dividing up by preferred political solutions.
None of that.
Just people gathering as followers of Jesus to pray together, study the scriptures together (if they have them), sing some songs together (quietly), and break bread together. Just two or three plus Jesus, because they have gathered in his name. (Matthew 18:20)
Is two or three plus Jesus not enough?
The Western Church has fallen in love with "the worship service" as if a crowd amplifies the Lord's presence. It doesn't.
It intensifies our experience. Sure. It amplifies our voice. Sure. It proclaims the gospel and declares the praises of God's people. Yes.
But in no way does a crowd amplify the Lord's presence.
If we're not clearheaded about this, we will "throw our pearls to the swine." Gathering publicly is not essential to being church. It's just how we're used to doing church. And I believe the caffeinated energy of crowds and celebrity camouflages the fact that many who do church have never been converted from their worldliness. They are good at doing church but with all their being, they are still worldly. But man, they sure are good at doing church.
Like I keep saying, this is our opportunity to discover what it really means to be Church.
But it's going to take intentionality — the kind of intentionality that we don't need to exercise when the highlight of our faith is doing church. Because the reality is that for most people, doing church really means letting other people do the stuff, so we can just show up and enjoy it.
I don't mean to sound jaded. I am just calling out what I believe is prophetic impulse: It is time for us to stop doing church and start being the Church.
And, like I taught yesterday, this is all about becoming Followers of the Way.
Go watch it again. Consider it. Become an apprentice. And share the message with anyone else in your circle who is just waiting till "we can start doing church again." It's got to be about way more than just doing church again.
Lord willing, I plan to teach this week about the need to be in community with a few others who are devoted to the same things.
I dare you to invite a few people over to your house for worship this Sunday.
Invite two other households if you have the room, whether that's two people or four, or even more. Setup the TV ahead of time. (We just plug a laptop into our smart TV via HDMI cable.)
Enjoy their company. Watch the service together. Then, at the end, take the lead in discussing the questions. And ask the question: "How can we be praying for each other?" Then do that. And plan ahead to share a meal together. Eat in or go out, doesn't matter. But let it start right there in your own home where you are learning to be the Church!
Who would be the most natural for you to invite? Start with them.
Be the Church.
When we go to somebody for help in overcoming something, it's often just to get a different perspective.
The counselor or therapist looks at our problem from a different perspective and, through questions, helps us to see things differently. And through experience with seeing what has helped others is able to prescribe what can help us.
The primary care physician looks at our symptoms from the perspective of having seen many people with the same symptoms, and then uses that perspective to decide whether we should be concerned, and to prescribe either medication or behavior modification that has the best likelihood of fixing the problem.
We go to the mechanic for perspective, the contractor for perspective, the accountant for perspective, the consultant for perspective, etc.
As a minister I am called upon to give perspective. My perspective as a preacher and teacher is to remind everyone how God has spoken into our circumstances. I open the scriptures to "correct, rebuke, and encourage." (2 Timothy 4:2) And my perspective as a pastor is to look at presenting problems and give spiritual direction, not always to alleviate the symptoms, but always to correct the root causes of whatever spiritual dysfunctions I see. Again, this is from my perspective.
As I was studying for last week's message (Encouragement in These Last Days) I was living with the perplexity I hear in many people as they ask, "What next?!" Like what bad thing is going to happen next?
Just last week (feels like forever ago) there was the explosion in Beirut, reports of earthquakes all over, a hurricane, and a tornado in PA. And that was on top of the ongoing pandemic, riots, political unrest, and all the posturing of a contentious election on the horizon. It just seems like we keep getting hit with "one more thing." I even learned last week that hundreds of elephants have been dying in Botswana and no one knows why. "One more thing."
As I pondered it, something felt familiar. I looked back a few years to gain perspective, and I found a message I preached on September 24, 2017. In it I addressed the same sense of perplexity we were experiencing then. See if you remember it. I said,
"Five weeks ago we had a Solar eclipse.
"Six days later Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston.
"Two days later North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan.
"Ten days later an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico.
"Two days after that Hurricane Irma hit us.
"Five days later North Korea launched another ballistic missile over Japan.
"Four days after that a 7.1 magnitude earthquake crushed Mexico City.
"Two days after that Hurricane Maria swamped the Caribbean Islands again.
"The day after that we had what seemed like a monsoon here.
"The day after that another earthquake in Mexico.
"And the whole time wildfires were consuming 2 million acres in the western United States.
"And, to top it all off, Christians were saying the world was going to end September 23rd. Otherwise known as 'yesterday.'"
At that time we were all asking "WHAT’S GOING ON?!?!" People were declaring unequivocally that "THE END IS NEAR!!!" Many were living in a state of constant alarm. I had forgotten a lot of those things, but now I remember them. Because it was my job to give perspective then, and it's my job to give perspective now.
I said then that many of us were "emotionally multitasking," going back and forth between “WE'RE ALL DOOMED!” and just watching the latest kitten videos. Today, instead of kitten videos, it's probably trying out the latest dance moves on TikTok or whatever.
I said then what I say now. And this is why you don’t catch me being alarmed about stuff.
I believe God wants his Church to be a non-anxious presence in the community. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned. But it does mean that we shouldn't be alarmed.
We need to remember that worry is a sin. I don't say that to shame you. I say it to free you. Don't give into it any more than you'd give in to lust or hatred. Confess it as sin and resist it. And then replace it with longing.
Worry looks forward in fear. Longing looks forward in anticipation. Hope holds all things in eternal perspective. This is foundational to our faith.
These are crazy times — and many say it’s evidence that we are in the End Times. Sure. I prefer the biblical phrase "the Last Days." It is less of a commitment to an eschatalogical framework as simply a faith statement that Jesus is coming back. The evidence for that is not how bad things are. The evidence is that Jesus left and hasn’t returned yet! When Jesus ascended into the sky (Acts 1:9) it was with a declaration that we were now in the Last Days. He would soon come back to get us.
So far that "soon" is 2000 years old. In other words, it's a really old "soon." It's a "soon" that has gone through 80 generations so far. Yet believers in each of those generations believed the Lord's return was imminent. And that's the better word: Imminent. That's what Jesus wanted his apostles to believe, and it's what he wants us to believe. So we believe. Eagerly.
Jesus is coming back soon. It could be today. Or he might delay another day. And even if he delays another generation, we're okay with it. We don't get to know when because we don't have to know when in order to be ready when. We just have to be ready now.
Like I said in this week's message, I’m prepared to see him coming on the clouds! But I’m also prepared to steward this life for another several decades if given the opportunity. I hope to live a long life, but more than that, I hope to live life longing for the Lord’s return, so that when he appears, I leap to my feet in eager anticipation.
I do fear that some feel like the bus is careening off the cliff and they're just trying to figure out whether it’s better to go along for the ride, or jump off before impact. If I can give this counsel from my perspective: Don’t jump off. The end will come soon enough.
Instead of fearing, start longing. Instead of being alarmed, just be encouraged. Focus on that, and soon enough, Jesus will return, and your whole being will erupt in a joyful shout at the glory of is appearing!
It's good to long for heaven. And for now, it's good to long patiently. As long as the Lord waits patiently, we must give witness to the hope of our gospel for all who receive him. I am encouraged by the imminence of the Lord’s return, and yet I count each day a sacred opportunity to encourage others to give their heart fully to Jesus.
Be encouraged today with this perspective: Jesus is coming soon. And Today is the Day of Salvation.
I knew it when I wrote it. Some would only read the headline. And the rumors would fly.
Today I learned of a rumor and it gives me opportunity to make the point again, so I smile and thank God for the opportunity. And I thank God that people care so much about SCC.
The phrase? "We're closed for good."
Like I say, I knew it was provocative, so I clarified it in the third sentence. I said, "I don't mean that like it sounds." And then I went on to explain what I meant, that God is using this temporary shut down for good. Meaning, let's look for the good that God wants to bring out of this! (I'll resist the urge to make the point again here. Just go read the full article.)
Nevertheless, some people think we have closed the church permanently. Let me correct that with two statements:
We don't know yet when we'll open weekly. We're taking many things into consideration. But we do hope to hold a public worship event in the next several weeks, even if it's not yet prudent to resume weekly gatherings. (More info to come.)
So please, if you hear anyone saying we've closed the church permanently, have them read this. And then have them read the original post. It's still a message that needs to be heard.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.