I was thinking this morning about my morning time with God. I've been doing it for 28 years. Sometimes I refer to it as my "devotions," but the truth is, I struggle to devote myself to it.
I do it. But I struggle to do it.
There are so many distractions. So many things I have to do. So many things that want me to pay attention to them. Some of them are worthwhile, like adding to my to do list, or responding to a text, or writing a blog or sermon. But some are worthless. (How can pulling up my phone to study a word from the biblical text turn into 15 minutes of watching videos?!)
I grab my coffee, I pull out my Bible, open it up on my lap, and read my phone. What's with that?
I don't believe faithfulness is measured by having a morning devotion. But I do believe spending time with God every morning increases faithfulness. In fact, I would say that my best experiences with God have been connected to this habit of getting alone with him, and devoting my attention to him.
When we spend time looking into the heart and mind of God through a prayerful reading of scripture, where we examine ourselves by it, it changes how we see God, how we see ourselves, and how we see the day itself. We become more grateful, more penitent, more sensitive, more caring, more loving, more patient, all those things. We fill up with love joy and peace!
But then we fill up our minds with the news, videos, memes, grams, snaps, tweets, and TikToks. Sigh.
This morning my reading had me in Revelation 1, where John said, "On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit," and then he describes a vision in which he hears from Jesus. It reminded me of Acts 10 where Peter was in a time of prayer and "fell into a trance" and saw a vision of Jesus. And that reminded me of Acts 22 where Paul described one time that he "fell into a trance" and saw a vision of Jesus.
I think I've always related to those things as a mystical grace that just sorta happened onto them. Maybe it was. And I don't think we're supposed to chase "trances" and "visions." But I do believe we're supposed to chase being in the Spirit.
To be "in the Spirit" is a choice that we make. It's something God invites us to, but he doesn't force us into it, or it into us. And sure, being "in the Spirit" can generally describe the life of someone who is surrendered to the Lord. We can talk about living a "Spirit-filled" life. But apparently, according to scripture, it can also describe a moment in that person's life that is uniquely "in the Spirit."
Peter, Paul, and John apparently set aside time to be "in the Spirit." I wonder if you do? Or if you will?
Today I am challenging you to do that, and I mean it in a very practical and yet spiritual way. Take time to be "in the Spirit."
When Wendy and I were dating as long-distance high school sweethearts, we got to know each other by letters, and then by phone calls. And in the phone call stage we would just sit on the phone together, sometimes not even talking to each other, just being together. And, if I can say it this way, we were simply being "into each other."
Will you take time to do that with God each day?
Take time to be "in the Spirit" today.
I did, and it is good.
In my office I have one wall painted with chalkboard paint. The last thing I wrote on it was written March 12, the day I decided to close down our public gatherings. It reads, "May, you will not recognize us."
On May 24 we reopened our campus to onsite worship and we did look different. Now as we close out June, we still look different. We have new faces. We're missing old faces. Everyone is still scattered sparsely throughout our large marked off auditorium. It feels like we're missing a bunch of people because they're not at 4041 Bahia Vista Street. But if you look at the sum total of people joining us onsite plus online, our "attendance" is actually double what it was this time last year.
Wow. Who knew?
Of course it doesn't feel that way. Only 25% of us meet onsite. The other 75% join us online, with 44% watching the service as it's streamed ("watch party" style), and 31% watching it on their own time (on demand).
If you look at the numbers we are now an online church with an onsite presence. We used to be an onsite church with an online presence.
What do we make of this? Is it the wave of the future?
If you listen to the chatter among the experts, some say churches should prepare to not see a return to "normal" for a couple years. Others think that's ridiculous, that people are just chomping at the bit to return. And others speculate that we'll never again see the kind of onsite attendance we used to, that online is the future of the church.
Personally, I think online is the future of the church. But I also believe we'll see a renewed interest in meeting onsite as health concerns subside. And I also believe that some people will realize they like online church better than onsite church, and it won't be because they're lazy Christians.
I'll say that again: It won't be because they're lazy Christians.
For generations "church attendance" was a measure of Christian faithfulness. We knew if a person was blacksliding because they stopped coming to church. But was that really the measure of Christian faithfulness? Most of us can think of many examples of lazy Christians who attend church faithfully.
What if there's a new way to be church? Honestly, much of what we think of as "being church" is really just being part of a cultural expression of church. That's not to say it's meaningless. To the contrary, it's very meaningful. But it's not the only meaningful expression.
And I do believe Christian fellowship is part of faithfulness. I just don't think Sunday morning church is necessarily the most meaningful fellowship. It can be. I just don't think it automatically is.
Like I said, I believe many of us will return to onsite worship gatherings where we express ourselves in the ways we find meaningful, even if less populated for a time. But I think we'll also see new expressions that we should embrace and celebrate, even nurture.
Not only do I imagine that those things will happen, I pray that they will, for the sake of God's kingdom. There certainly is something to the onsite gathering that will always be wonderful. But there is something about the online gathering that onsite doesn't offer. With onsite gatherings people come to church. But with online gatherings, church goes to the people.
Let's do both. And let's do it well. May God fill the world with love joy and peace as we sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship near and far.
I wonder how you have been relating to onsite and online church? And how do you see yourself relating to both in the future? Would you please help me understand by taking a minute to fill out this survey?
Like I do each week, I've made yesterday's teaching available in a shorter video on my YouTube channel so you can review it, but also to share with people on social media or by email. (Subscribe to the channel and click the bell icon to get notified every time I upload a new video.)
This week's message is especially important for this time. I believe God is calling us to carry the Kingdom of Heaven into the midst of the brokenness.
Often we think solutions to global problems need to be huge. I think they need to be personal. This is why you don't hear me proclaiming political or cultural solutions. That's not to say we shouldn't engage politically or culturally. To the contrary, be good citizens. But remember, we can't change the heart of a nation without changing the hearts of its citizens.
Laws may guide those with good hearts, and limit the actions of those with bad hearts. But laws don't change hearts. Likewise, protests may preach the need for change and sway decision makers, but protests don't change hearts. That's why we see such division. That's why people have more energy for fighting than or fixing what's wrong.
The scripture that guides me is Colossians 1:28-29, We proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end we strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in us.
The gospel is wisdom for what's broken. And it's power for what's weak.
"We proclaim Christ." Be encouraged this week to do the same. Let everything you say or post or do "proclaim Christ" as the first and most reliable solution. Carry the Kingdom of Heaven in your heart by being obedient to love, submitted to gratitude and joy, and assured by peace. Then carry it to those who are nearest you who seem to need it:
Pray for them. Serve them. Love them. Bring joy to them. Make peace with them. Encourage them. Lead them to faith. Encourage them to faithfulness. Be the gospel to them. Proclaim Christ.
Who in your circle needs hope and encouragement today? Who in your circle seems broken today? Would you share this week's video with them?
Watch the video and when your heart says Amen to it, click the "Share" button and post it to your social media, or send it in a private message or email with a personal note.
If the person is a believer, they will be reminded of what's important in this broken time. If they are not a believer (or have wandered from the faith) this will tell them how they can fix what's so broken inside them!
Let's bring the Kingdom of Heaven near those who are near each of us today. Let's begin the conversation with them.
It's easy to have a moment on Sunday where we feel inspired, but then wake up Monday and start looking for the next moment of inspiration. Today, I'm asking you to fan the flame of yesterday's inspiration so that it is Today's inspiration. Let it be said that when we come near anyone, "the Kingdom of Heaven has come near."
Today, carry the Kingdom of Heaven into the midst of brokenness.
Today, heal the sick.
Today, raise the dead.
Today, cleanse the leprous.
Today, drive out demons.
Today, let's fix the brokenness.
Yesterday I spoke about how we can choose peace. I started by saying how tired I am of all the conflict, but that I'm inspired that we can choose peace.
Within two hours I was standing outside a restaurant in full embrace with a black man, both of us weeping.
I asked him how the message came across. He said he's tired of everything being about "black and white." He told me, "We need to be concerned about people, not the color of their skin. We need to have empathy for each other." I couldn't agree with him more.
In life, when there is conflict and a door opens that allows us to escape that conflict, I am inclined to walk through that door. Most of us are, to some degree.
Sometimes that door is labeled "distraction." We can escape conflict by just distracting ourselves with humor, or Netflix, or ice cream, or whatever. That's not really escaping the conflict, it's just delaying it. And letting it get infected.
But sometimes the door is labeled "rebuke" and "correction" and "repentance" and "forgiveness." We should always choose that door when we see it. And when we do walk through that door, we should close the door behind us.
Many of us don't keep it closed though.
Think about where there's been broken trust in your life, and how easy it is to revisit the conflict whenever it feels more familiar than whatever other discomfort you're facing.
Someone hurts you at work, so you come home and remind your loved one of the time they hurt you. It's a familiar conflict. You know that you will win this argument so you open the door and pull the offender back into the room. Even though you've already forgiven them. It feels ugly but somehow it feels secure. You at least know how it ends.
We do this at a societal level too. And each of us is prone to interact with the things of society at a personal level. We pull out past offenses because the new offenses feel unstable.
And then we fight.
One person says, "Black lives matter!"
Someone else answers, "ALL lives matter!"
And the fight is on.
But we're not stupid. Every single one of us knows what both sides mean by it. Every single one of us. But it's a familiar fight so it's more comfortable than other conflicts. It feels ugly but at least we know how it ends.
My friend with black skin told me that we just need to be about people, not about whether they're black and white. He said we need to be about empathy, not about picking sides. And everything in me said amen to that.
But then he told me that he lives scared.
I don't. I mean I wonder if times might change to where I need to be scared. But I don't live scared.
He said whenever he's around white people he has to make sure that he smiles and keeps his palms facing outward. No possible show of aggression. If he's angry about something he's not allowed to let it show. If he's insulted, he's not allowed to let it show. If he's just not feeling happy, he's not allowed to let it show. He's tired of being scared of scaring white people, or giving an excuse to people who want to do violence to black people. He's tired of it being about black and white. He's tired of being black where it's about being black or white.
He was caught off guard by his emotions. The tears burst and he apologized. But then he just let go. And there we were, a black man and a white man, standing on a sidewalk crying. My back was to the street. I wondered what people were thinking. He always wonders what people are thinking.
I asked him, "As a black man, you drive into our mostly white neighborhood, pull into the driveway of this mostly white family, you get out of your car and walk up to our door and walk into our house without knocking?"
I felt like it was a question but it wasn't. It was just empathy. And he cried very tired tears. He is always making sure that no one sees him as a threat. Smile and wave. Say something funny. Even if you're not happy. Even if there's nothing funny.
I reminded him that he's a good man. I said, "But if you're around a 75 year old white woman who isn't sure who you are, you'll do whatever you can to make sure she feels safe around you, because you're a good man." He said, "Yes, of course." But he's just tired.
Finally I reached out and pulled him into my embrace. I had wanted to do it sooner, but wanted to let the conversation mature. I wanted to hear everything he had to say, but then it was time.
We held each other tightly, there on the sidewalk, in front of the plate glass windows of the restaurant where we had just eaten and joked and laughed together. And there we wept...
We held each other tightly and he thanked me. He thanked me for being "family." I told him I loved him. He told me the same.
We got into our respective cars. I broke down and wept more. He probably put himself together and found his composure again. But I felt his pain. I'm not sure I've felt it before.
And then I watched "the black man" drive through the parking lot. I told Wendy and Bekah, "And everyone right now is noticing a black man driving through the parking lot." That would be so tiring.
We all know what the phrases mean. We're not stupid. Whether the phrase is "black lives matter," or "all lives matter," or "blue lives matter", someone is just saying, "My life matters." And really they're asking, "Does my life matter?"
We can all argue semantics. We can all argue logic. We can all go tit for tat. We can all try to pull people back into past conflicts where we feel like we will win. It's familiar there. We're all so smart. So why are we so foolish?
This isn't about winning, this is about loving others as God has loved us.
I am pleading with all who are on the side of peace, all who are on the side of love, all who are following the way of Jesus, to make sure you're fighting the right fight. Let's keep this about loving people because they're people, and working hard to have empathy for each other, in the name of love, because we've been loved.
For that reason I am choosing to carry this response in my heart. I said it yesterday but it needs to be more than a statement in a sermon. I am carrying it at the surface of my heart so that it overflows easily onto the heart of anyone who wonders if they matter -- whether black, brown, blue, or all. And I would encourage you to do the same, saying it generously, as if spilling forth from a heart overflowing with the love of God:
"Your life matters."
I spoke very briefly yesterday about the killing of George Floyd, the protests, and the riots. As a general rule, I'm reticent to speak to events that are still unfolding and being politicized. These days it seems like that's everything.
I read this morning in 1 Peter 4 that those who have been called to preach or teach "should do so as one who speaks the very words of God," meaning clearly with confidence. It's tempting to rush into speaking confidently for God before hearing clearly from God.
I want my words to be reasoned and helpful. And if a situation is still unfolding or if everyone hears my words as making a political statement, it's hard to be that. Nevertheless, I do have something to say, even if not the final thing to say.
Teaching the wisdom of scripture in a time of social unrest feels like trying to teach a crowded theater how to safely evacuate after someone has already yelled "fire." They're too panicked to hear.
We can all reason that when people don't hear your words it's best to just lead the way. And when people don't notice you leading the way, it's good to take their arm and pull them to safety.
But what if they fight you? And what is safety?
To the shop owner whose store is being looted by opportunistic thieves, is safety just going home?
To citizens whose city is being set on fire by anarchists, is safety just getting out of their way?
To officers who fear for their lives, but who have sworn to uphold the law, is safety just standing down?
To blacks who fear for their lives, and feel unheard, is safety just being quiet?
To whites who fear being called racist if they don't say the right thing the right way, is safety just being quiet?
Two mixed-race boys call me Pop Pop. I can tell my grandsons all day long that they're just as much white as they are black, but it doesn't change that the world sees them as black. And I can say all day long that they actually have certain privileges that I don't have. But it doesn't change that I have certain privileges they don't. Or that I don't face the same kind of hatred they do.
Proverbs 18:13 says "To answer before listening -- that is folly and shame." And Proverbs 18:17 reminds us that "In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines."
Whether we're outraged at racism or rioting (and why can't it be both?) wisdom takes time to listen.
Our perspective is small. We think it's large and global but we're seeing the world through a little window called "the media." We only see what they show us. And then we interpret it as right or wrong by another little window called "our own experiences." Sure, we can flip channels and we should. We can try to look through multiple windows and we should.
Turn to FOX and you see people looting and destroying things. It's really happening.
Turn to CNN and you see people sitting peacefully in quiet protest. It's really happening.
Turn to social media and you will see the hate of racism. It's really happening.
And pay attention to social media and you will see people of all colors who are not racist, and who are working for peace. It is really happening.
But it seems like if anyone speaks about one reality without recognizing the other, people call them names. And if they speak of neither reality for fear of being misunderstood, people call them names.
Proverbs 26:4-5, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes."
It seems you can't win. Usually you just have to pick one and live with the consequences.
For those reasons, I'm reticent to say anything about current events, and yet I'm compelled to speak hope and reason today to a circle of people who call me "pastor." And if you care to speak the same hope and reason to those who call you family or friend, may God use it to bring hope and reason to the overlapping circles we call society.
Prudence calls us to be slow to judgment about people and their actions. But love calls us to be swift to action in rescuing the oppressed. And both prudence and love call us to be consistent in our judgments about what is right and wrong.
Here's my counsel:
And if #3 seems objectionable to you in any way, reread it as God telling you to do it. It's not written for you to agree with. It's written for you to learn from. Here it is again as we read it in James 3:13-18,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Let's live as "wise and understanding," as beacons of light and hope, sowing peace and righteousness. For those who live by the Holy Spirit, there is such love joy and peace, even in the face of such great conflict. As believers, this world is not our home. But as we join together, Jesus is at home with us while we are in this world.
Psalm 120:7, "I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war."
Even if others are for war, let us work together for peace.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.