We met yesterday for the first time in eleven weeks. Most of us still watched online, but 75 of us ventured out. I trust each of us made the best decision we could. It was good to see your faces again.
As I reflect on my experience, I'm surprised at how hard it was to not greet people in the usual way. The joy of fellowship is more than a hand shake or hug, but it sure is expressed in it. Without those things it feels awkward. Once I caught myself forgetting to talk, like somehow wearing a mask meant I had to signal with my hands and eyes. It feels silly to admit that. And to admit that I felt a bit lonely in the crowd. But still it was good to be together.
The restoration of our in person gathering is a bit of a milestone, and it makes me thankful.
Thank you to everyone for adjusting so easily to the changes we've made over the past couple months, and then again yesterday. Thank you for following directions, following the guidelines, putting other people needs and opinions ahead of your own. In fact, this has been a great opportunity to demonstrate the "mutual submission" of Christian community where we look not only to our own interests, but each of us to the interest of the others. (Philippians 2:4)
In responding to this opportunity, my goal has been to create the safest environment for the most vulnerable among us. The strong should always care for the weak. In the midst of this uncertainty, we have taken precautions that may eventually prove to be unnecessary. But I believe we've been safe without being scared.
My goal has also been to cooperate with the governing authorities, that we would be a joy to serve, not a burden. Again, I believe we have shown respect for those who lead us as public servants.
And my goals has been to keep us connected around a common worship experience by making it available online. We did that.
Now that some of us have begun connecting in person again, I want to remember those who continue to connect online. I do look forward to the day our in person venue is filled with people singing again. But I hope that we will always see online as more than just an "alternative" to the "real" gathering. May it continue to connect us with people who wouldn't otherwise be able to, whether separated by quarantine or by geographical distance.
But why connect? Why connect with each other? Why connect with anyone?
Two scriptures come to mind:
Philippians 2:1-4 (NIV)
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
And Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We need to connect! And the gift we've received the last couple months is the reminder of what we already knew: It's good to be together. But take away the possibility of gathering and we tend to find other ways to connect. It's human to do so. And it's Christian to do so.
Why do we connect?
Do you know anyone who needs any of those things? Try to connect with them.
Or perhaps you notice what's been missing in your own life. Or perhaps it reminds you of something that I didn't think to list. The thing is, don't neglect connecting.
I know it's hard right now, but do what you can to connect. People need you. And you need them. Connect in person if you can, or by phone, text, email, or video conference. Pray together, talk together, laugh together, hang out together if you can. Just be together and connect as people and as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
Until we meet again,
History will show that Sarasota Community Church went ten Sundays without meeting in person, from March 15 through May 17.
And I trust that it will also show how resilient the Church is, and how being Church is about way more than whether we get to "go to church" or not.
And yet the Spirit longs for fellowship and this is good. Something in us pulls us toward each other, whether in large gatherings or in small gatherings.
Last week some of us have started to meet again in small gatherings. It was good to see each other in person again.
Now, this coming Sunday, May 24, we are opening our auditorium again for the large gathering. If I didn't feel confident that we can meet safely at Church, I wouldn't open the doors yet. But I believe that we can meet safely if we do it thoughtfully.
So, effective this Sunday, not only does "Grace happen here," now "Space happens here." Be prepared to observe distancing protocol and follow the signs, and you will help keep it safe for everyone.
The tricky thing about this infectious disease is that you can't see it. So we have to assume it will be among us.
That doesn't mean we should live in fear of it. For me I just try to assume that the person I want to hug or shake hands with just had an infected person do the same thing to them. I'm not judging the person as unclean. I'm just realizing that I don't know who just violated their space. And you don't know who just violated mine. So let's just keep our space.
So as I keep saying, instead of shaking hands or hugging, just pat your heart as you say what you want to say. It's a bit awkward at first. Sure, it feels forced. But it works. Or you can wave or nod or whatever comes naturally to you. Just don't touch.
I believe that with these precautions we can meet safely at Church. And if we later learn that someone was there who tests positive, we don't have to wonder whether they came close to us, because we know that we kept our distance from everybody. And we also know that the facility is being disinfected each week.
So with those things in place, I believe we can meet safely at Church. Doors will open at 9:30 for a 10AM service. Hope to see you there.
On the other hand, many of us should not come to the campus yet.
Those who have any symptoms should stay home and watch online. Really. Err on the side of caution.
And those who have weakened immune systems should do the same. Really. Please don't risk it. Let's roll this out slowly. Don't rush. Let us come to you as we have been.
I realize this may feel like we are "meeting without you." But believe me, you will be near our hearts as we gather. If there's anything we've learned in the past ten weeks, it's that "online church" is a legitimate way to gather. So we will continue to acknowledge that.
Thank you for your prayers and patience during this time. Crisis often brings the worst out in people, and I just need to say that this church has been easy to lead! I believe God is filling us with love joy and peace to fill Sarasota with love joy and peace by sowing the hope of the gospel into every relationship.
A reopening of our doors may be a milestone in some regards. It's the question of the day: "When are you reopening?" Even though we can now answer that question with "May 24," it quickly becomes apparent that it's just a change of venue.
If this change of venue allows you to invite unchurched or dechurched people, please invite them. And please continue to use our online church to do the same. We are living among so many people who have so little love joy or peace in their lives, and we have such a gift to give. So whether safely at home or safely at church, let's be the Church!
I'm so glad to live here in Florida where it's hot and humid and sunny and beautiful. I love it.
And I guess the virus hates it! And that means some of our freedoms are being restored. We're not letting our guard down, but as we continue to follow the guidelines, they give us permission to meet. (Sorry northern friends!)
To be clear, we are not meeting in person this Sunday.
But I do think we're very close. Like, very close.
Now, if that makes you nervous for any reason, please don't come. Keep watching online. There's no shame in that. Like I keep saying, each of us should decide for ourselves whether the guidelines restrict us or give us freedom. When we open the church again it will be for those who can reasonable attend. But we also have some who shouldn't be out right now. So, if you're not well or if you have a weakened immune system, please continue to shelter in place. We will continue to stream our services at sarasotacommunity.online.church as we have been. I don't see this changing.
But for those who are able, start preparing your heart to gather again. Start imagining a Sunday morning where you get ready before church instead of after it. (Haha.) Start getting ready, because that's what our staff is doing. I'm not ready to say when we're opening -- not yet -- but I think it'll be soon.
Our goal is to create an experience where everyone not only is safe, but everyone feels safe. This is prudent to health, but also to hospitality.
And of course no handshakes or hugs. In fact, even if you feel good about hugging and shaking hands I'm asking all of us to go the extra mile in creating a safe experience for those who feel most threatened by gathering.
Just resist the urge to hug and shake hands. For some of us that feels rude, so I'd like to recommend something that I learned from a pastor friend of mine (Tyler Hartford, who pastors some of own our winter residents in Indiana). He learned it from another culture where it was just their way. And I think it's beautiful.
It shows affection and honor and warmth. It touches the heart. And it does that by touching your own heart! That's the gesture.
When we greet each other, let's just put our hand to our heart:
"So good to see you."
"So nice to meet you."
No hugs or handshakes. You can touch the other person's heart by just touching your own.
"I missed you."
"How are you doing?"
"How can I be praying for you."
Start trying it on for size. I think you'll like it. Let's see if it can become our preferred greeting.
I can't wait to see everybody. The Spirit calls us to fellowship. And love also calls us to prudence even in our zeal. I appreciate your prayers for wisdom and discernment, not only for these decisions, but always. It is the prayer of my heart.
See you soon,
How well do you know your neighbors?
Do you know their names? Can you name their joys? Do you know their sorrows, and what fills them with anxiety, or gives them a sense of peace?
Years ago, when we planted a church in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, we were led in a series of "Prayer Walks" through the neighborhoods we were hoping to reach. And we were given a principle that sticks with me to this day: When you pray onsite you pray with insight.
As Wendy and I walked those streets, praying conversationally with our eyes open and as if Jesus was walking with us, we would pass a house with kids toys and pray with insight: "Lord, we pray for the children in this house... We pray for the parents..." And we would walk by a house with a old beater in the driveway and could pray, "Lord, provide for their needs. Answer their prayers. Give them financial wisdom. Keep that car running for them." When you pray onsite you pray with insight.
Here in Sarasota I sometimes do prayer drives, even taking side streets on my way to some place so that I can pray through the neighborhoods. I try not to look suspicious (ha!) but I pay attention to the needs I see, praying onsite with insight. When I notice a blue tarp on someone's roof it gives me a sense of what they would like me to pray for. When I see a $50,000 car in front of a $200,000 house, it gives me a sense of what to pray for. When I see a boat that hasn't been touched for 20 years, or a couple brand new Jet Skis out front, it gives me insight about who might live there, and what they have experienced or are experiencing.
Many of us have taken to walking our neighborhoods during this shut in. What an opportunity to pray with insight. Pay attention and pray with intention. Open your eyes with an open heart and you will see the needs: A lawn that's overgrown. A car that hasn't moved in a long time. A car that's never home. Five cars in one house. Kids toys. A wheelchair ramp. Christmas decorations in May. You may guess wrong about the situation (maybe they just like Christmas), but even if the details are wrong, it still gives you a sense about what to pray for.
This is true even for those of us who still report to work, or can't get out and walk the neighborhood. Pray for the people in front of you at the stoplight. Pray for the people you're scrolling through on social media. Pay attention to the people you see and you will see needs. When you pray onsite, you pray with insight.
The Lord calls us to be a people of prayer.
Today, this week, next week, next month... As you have opportunity, do good to all people. Start by praying for them. This is where your heart of compassion finds clarity. And this is where anything else you do tangibly is empowered by the hand of God.
That Sarasota might be filled with love joy and peace!
Today we enter Phase One of the governor's Reopen Florida plan. For us that means we are planning to bring the worship team back together to lead worship from our worship center. I hope everyone finds encouragement in that, even if we don't meet together this Sunday.
We are watching how this first week of Phase One goes before deciding when we will reopen our campus to public activities. Phase One calls for "strict distancing protocol," and then Phase Two calls for "moderate distancing protocol." Meeting under Phase One poses some difficulty. Meeting under Phase Two, not so much. Again, we are not living in fear, but choosing to be cooperative, and exercise prudence, believing it in no way jeopardizes our faith to do so. But we are also looking forward to gathering again. To be together and encourage each other is part of the vitality of our faith. We will meet again soon, Lord willing. I'll let you know.
As we prepare, I want you to pray with me about the opportunities in front of us. It's like a reset button has been pushed, and we get to decide what we do now.
Think about how many times God's people have gotten to start over. The most obvious is the Flood where Noah and his family got to replant humanity. But even before that, when Cain killed Able, he was sent away to a new land to start over. And before that, when Adam and Eve sinned, they were sent out of the garden to start over.
But still Noah is the one we think about. God said he was tired of contending with humanity and its sin so he pressed the reset button. Took a few samples of what he had created and wiped everything else out. Then he put those samples on a mountain top and said, "Start over." And one of the first things we see is Noah getting drunk.
A few generations later and Abraham was called to leave his land and go start over. He had kids and they had kids and they had kids, and they all ended up in Egypt where they had more and more kids. They ended up enslaved to the Egyptians so God brought Moses to push a reset button for them. They had opportunity to go straight into the Promised Land, but they balked, so they wandered the wilderness until that whole generation had died.
Then God pushed the reset button again, and brought them into the Promised Land. They established themselves but during that time there was no king and everyone did as they thought best. And it wasn't best. They had priests and judges, but they sinned and sinned and sinned.
Eventually God pushed the reset button and brought a king, and another king, and another. The kings were good, then bad, then good, then bad, and so on and so on. There has never been a time that God's people were not encumbered by sin.
Finally, God pushed the reset button by sending his son -- by coming in the flesh. When he conquered death he pushed the biggest reset button of them all. And here we are living by faith, no longer under the tutelage of the Law, and no longer enslaved by our fear of death.
But even after Jesus, God has continued to push the reset button for us. Pentecost, the scattering of the Church by persecution, the evangelism of the Gentiles, the missionary journeys of Paul, the development of Christendom. In fact, if we look all the way back to the Flood we can see a major reset roughly every 500 years: Noah (2500 BC), Abraham (2000), Moses (1500), David (1000), the Exiles return (500), Jesus/The Church (0), The First East-West Schism and Reconciliation (500AD), the Great East-West Schism (1000), the Reformation (1500), and now here we are (2000). With each one we can look back at things that were lost and gained, some of it negative and some of it positive. And each was opportunity to do a new thing.
I don't think this Coronavirus Pandemic is on par with the Flood or the Reformation. But it is opportunity to do a new thing. Even if it can be hard to let go of old things, there's something refreshing about a new start.
This is on my mind and in my prayers, and I invite you to consider it with me: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses," meaning, people who have been faithful through time, "let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV)
Pray for clear discernment about this. It's the right question to be asking. And if you get any sense of godly conviction or passion about it, like what you would be most energized to throw yourself into as the mission for your life in these times, let me know what you think by emailing me.
With love and faith,
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.