I wrote in last week’s blog that we are “closed for good” — meaning God is doing good in us through this trial. That is his way.
I don’t know when we’ll open the campus again, but because of this trial, I have opened my heart to something better than “going to church,” and I invite you to do the same.
I believe God is purifying his Church by burning off the complexities and confidences that we’ve allowed to clutter the gospel and confuse faithfulness. Proverbs 23:1-8 is jarring but speaks wisdom to us in this time:
"When you sit to dine with a ruler...do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive. Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle. Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. 'Eat and drink,' he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments."
The Western Church has long dined with rulers and craved their delicacies. We have worn ourselves out to attract and assimilate people. We have trusted in our own cleverness and have “cast but a glance” at effectiveness, only to see it “fly off” time and time again. We have eaten the food of a begrudging host and are vomiting up what we have eaten.
Every disappointment we face in life and in ministry should remind us of the temptation of doing things by our own cleverness and for our own benefit. Such disappointments are for our good because they bring us face to face with truth.
I am renewed in my conviction that it is not our job to “grow the Church.” Jesus already told us that he would build his Church. Our job is to proclaim Christ, not our church brand, and to teach people about Jesus, not about us.
If only God would call all congregations back to this simple and pure desire! If only we would renew our love! If only we would strengthen and encourage each other to remain true to the Lord! If only we would remind each other that being the Church is about living in Christ, not going to church or promoting a church brand!
Each week I give the blessing to “go be the Church” and by that I mean to “go be followers of Jesus” together. That's it. And “together” means together with all believers everywhere, wherever you find believers! And "together" means friendship with people you can pray with and encourage to remain true to the Lord. This is much more significant than belonging to a "big church" or a "small group." It's belonging to Jesus.
I believe "Church" is getting ready to look different. It already looks different, but I believe this is opportunity to do a new thing. In fact, this is my confidence and hope, that as we currently rest from onsite gathering, God is calling us to something better than just onsite gathering.
This is good, and it’s for God’s purpose. We are being shaken so that what is unworthy will fall off. And when that has happened, let it be true that whatever remains is simple and pure and worthy of his praise.
To that end, I invite you to prayerfully consider: How best might we “fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with Great Compassion and Great Conviction” in this new era? Not as a new program to try, but as a simpler, more pure way of being the Church.
Thank you for your support!
Thank you for continuing to honor God with your finances! May you be blessed for your Generosity! We continue to receive checks from many in the mail, or by text, or online. (Please note that we now have an option for those who give online to pay the transaction fee incurred by the church so that all of your offerings goes to the church itself.)
A few weeks ago we ran a fundraiser to help a widow in our community get a new roof. We chose to use GoFundMe because we wanted to connect as many as possible to the opportunity, believing that not only is it a gift to the recipient, but the opportunity for people to show compassion is itself a gift. We had a goal of $4,000 and exceeded by nearly $1,000 which we will apply to similar projects. We are excited to coordinate tangible help like this!
Spread the Word
The gospel provides hope that this world desperately needs. And God's wisdom speaks so profoundly into the struggles we all face. It's my joy to open scripture each week against the backdrop of current events. And I'm encouraged by many who say they are encouraged.
I want to explain this hope to as many people as possible, so I make the weekly teachings available on YouTube. But just putting a video on YouTube doesn't help people find it. I need your help.
Not everyone is called to preach or teach, but if you have social media, you have the ability to spread the word. (And if you've been encouraged by the weekly sermons, others will be encouraged too!)
So here's what I'm asking you to do:
Together, we can sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship!
Call to Prayer
As staff and overseers, we have been walking the church parking lot regularly to pray for our congregation, and for Sarasota. I believe we have only begun to see what God wants us to see in this, and I am filled with anticipation and enthusiasm about it.
He is good, loving, and powerful. And he is not perplexed or indecisive.
And so, as I wait on God, even though I am disturbed by the destruction and ungodliness I see in the world, I am not disquieted. As I measure the days, I am filled with righteous indignation, yet I trust in the Lord and am filled with love. I do not know the future, but I am confident that we must apply ourselves personally to fulfilling “the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with Great Compassion and Great Conviction.” And I believe it will look different than what we have done in the past.
I believe and pray that in these days, the name of Jesus and the grace of the gospel will become more eminent as the judgment of God becomes increasingly imminent. This is our confidence and our urgency.
May the Lord “fill the world with love joy and peace as we sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship.”
With sober conviction and hope,
We're closed for good.
I say that in faith.
Of course, I don't mean that like it sounds. What I mean is that our campus is closed for a time, but it's closed with an expectation that good will come of it. We don't know when it will reopen, but until then it's "closed for good," even if not for long. And even if for long.
We expect that even in this, God is making things new.
I continue to have the sense that the field we've sown and reaped for 70 years, is being forced to lie fallow. I'm not a farmer so I'll let the dictionary explain what that means: fal·low |ˈfalō | adjective | (of farmland) plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.
I asked the staff yesterday, "In what ways are we better for being closed?" The easiest answer was a renewal in our appreciation of fellowship. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Then I asked, "In what ways are we worse for being closed?" This was just as easy to answer: difficulty of fellowship.
And this is no surprise. When I polled you all a several weeks ago about what you miss most, you said overwhelmingly: Fellowship. And that's the hardest thing to do online. And to be candid, I wonder if it is a pastor's job to get people to fellowship together. It certainly isn't my job to get people to eat or sleep.
At some point, as adults, we put food in our own mouths, we put ourselves to bed, and we put ourselves in proximity with others to enjoy their company. Nevertheless, many have become accustomed to the local church being their social hub, and when it's not, some of us feel a bit lost.
So yes, fellowship.
But there are other answers to the "better/worse" questions. And not just for us as A church, but for THE Church -- the larger Body of Christ of which we are just a cell, along with all the other churches. And that's where much of my thoughts are these days.
In what ways are we "closed for good?"
Something about this shut down seems to me like God is preparing to do something totally new. And it seems like it's something that needs the "land" to rest first. Like, it's time for a great harvest, but the soil needs to become rich again. So he's causing the land to rest.
I get the thought from Leviticus 25.
1The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.
And then it calls for a double sabbath. In the 49th and 50th years the land is to spend two years at rest. And along with it, property is to be returned to its clan, slaves are to be freed, and debts are to be forgiven. It's huge.
It reads this way:
8“ ‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. 13“ ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.
Hmm. The "Year of Jubilee." A year of emancipation and restoration. I wonder why God did that. But I also wonder why we question it.
I suspect he did it because we question it. We don't trust it. We're supposed to work, to sow, to reap. But when God told his people how to live in the land, he said, "Sow and reap! But then, every seventh year, don't sow or reap! Just trust me to do the sowing and reaping! And every seventh time you do that, do it one more year for good measure, so that at least once in your lifetime you know what it is to seriously trust me to provide for you."
Sure, we could say that he said this because he understood the land's limitations and was just teaching them to be good stewards of the land. But we could also say that he understood their own limitations (and temptations to self-reliance) and was teaching them to be good stewards of their own hearts.
I recently finished reading 1st Chronicles and 2nd Chronicles where it describes the up and down, back and forth loyalty of God's people. A good king is followed by a bad king is followed by a good king is followed by a bad king. And sometimes the good king becomes the bad king. It's very disconcerting. Finally, at the end of it, God causes his people to be forcefully carried away from the Promised Land he gave them, and back into captivity again, this time to Babylon. He warned them time and time again, and they didn't respond, so he followed through.
It's summarized in the last chapter, 2 Chronicles 36:
15The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. 17He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. 18He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
20He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power.
And then it says this curious thing:
21The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
Why? Was God really so concerned about the soil? Wasn't he more concerned that his people had not followed him? That they had not trusted him?
Yes, the latter. And yet he honored his own command by following through on the former. And the land was at rest while they were in captivity, all as a testimony against their unwillingness to trust him.
I have a strong sense that what the world is undergoing right now is a time of preparation. It may even be a time of God following through on his warnings. I'll let you talk to God about that for more insight. But for me, my thoughts go to isolation, competition, and an overconfidence in strategy.
If those things were to happen, we would celebrate that we were "closed for good," right? I'm just telling you that I believe in faith with hope that we are "closed for good."
Of course, no matter how you cut it, the Church is still very, very open. In fact, we haven't closed a single day. Not for a single minute. You can't close the Church anymore than you can close a field. It is a field. And we are the Church. But both the field and the Church can honor God with a sabbath rest.
My encouragement to you is to receive your rest. Restore your faith. Renew your energy. Let God take care of you. And trust that God is not done with "ripe fields" but rather he is preparing the fields for a harvest greater than the overworked fields can currently produce.
Join me in that prayer.
In yesterday's message I talked about how I try to read scripture every day. I said that it's a practice that has fed me and kept me on track for 28 years.
This isn't a new concept, but it can be intimidating. For many, their heart says yes but they don't know where to start or what to do.
So today I'm going to tell you what I've found helpful.
In fact, I dare say that this "daily" habit has helped me more in my faith than any other, coupled with the habit of regular contemplation.
But first, before I explain my plan, let me say that there is not such a thing as an inspired reading plan, other than just the Bible itself.
And second, I must admit that nowhere in the Bible are we told to read the Bible every day. We are, however, told to meditate on it day and night. It is described as a lamp that helps us see the path. It offers wisdom, correction, guidance, all that. It makes us wise for salvation, so we follow it.
Third, we need to remember that the Bible wasn't written as a Bible. The Bible is actually a compilation of prophetic writings received over a period of 1500 years that were finally bound together as one book so we could have it all handy. And the chapters and verses weren't added until the 1500's. It makes it easier to reference things. Even if there are some cool connections and patterns in the numbers, it's the words that are significant, not the little numbers. So don't get caught up in having to read a certain number of chapters or verses. They're just there to help you find stuff.
That said, I try to read four chapters a day.
I'm not perfect at it. But it would be impossible to overstate the help that this habit has been for me. It gives me perspective. It "lights my path." There simply is no substitute for sitting in the counsel of scripture every day.
Years ago I was looking for my own Bible reading plan, and I discovered a plan to read through the Bible in a year. It took me two and half years! I read it slowly, with curiosity. I cross-referenced freely and allowed myself to use the reading plan to stimulate my interest, and then allowed God to lead me.
After that I decided that four chapters a day was a good pattern. I decided that rather than trying to read through the Bible in a set amount of time, I would just read in the Bible every day.
I divided the Bible into four sections, and since that time I have been reading one chapter a day from each section.
1. "WORSHIP & WISDOM" covers Psalms through Ecclesiastes. I let these chapters lead me in worship and teach me God's wisdom. I often refer to the teachings in these books to help me make wise decisions when my heart or mind would either be confused, or pulled sideways. I read through this section every seven months or so.
2. "THE STORY OF GOD & HIS PEOPLE" covers Genesis through Malachi (skipping those covered in the "worship and wisdom" section). These are the stories of God and his people, that lead up to Christ. Reading this in the context of the next two sections leads to some wonderful insights about what God was up to from the beginning. I read through this section once every two years.
3. "THE STORY OF JESUS & HIS CHURCH" covers Matthew through Acts. These are the stories of Jesus' life and the lives of his followers after he returned to heaven. As followers of Jesus it is critical that we get to know him in this way, and to learn how those first believers followed the leading of the Holy Spirit. I read through this section three times a year.
4. "THE LETTERS TO THE CHURCH" covers Romans through Revelation. This is where I learn from the apostles how to live out my faith. Technically the last book is not a letter, but it actually references letters to seven churches, and it makes sense to keep it in this category. I read through this section two times a year.
So I read those four chapters a day using three bookmarks and the ribbon in my Bible. When I finish one section, I start over at the beginning of that section the next day, while continuing on in the other sections. For example, here's what a few snapshots looks like:
-1 Corinthians 1 (Go to next book)
-Matthew 1 (Go to beginning of section again)
-1 John 5
-Psalm 1 (Start at beginning of section again)
This staggered pattern means that I will probably never read the same four chapters in a day. And it's amazing how often the daily readings interact in eye opening ways. Such is the nature of God's word.
So that's what I do. And I give myself plenty of freedom in it. Remember, the goal is to spend time contemplating God's word on a daily basis. And this pattern is a helpful guide. Make it a lifestyle habit and you will receive a balanced, ongoing experience of sitting under the whole counsel of scripture!
May God open up his word to you, as you devote yourself to him in this way.
Friday our daughter-in-law messaged us to see if they could come to our house for worship on Sunday. Of course the answer was YES!
Now, that may not make sense unless you know what happens behind the scenes these days. When we are not meeting onsite (when the campus is closed) the worship team records the service ahead of time, and then streams it Sunday as a simulated live event. So, even though I'm "on stage," my experience Sunday mornings is just like yours. Wendy, Bekah, and I sit on the couch and watch the service together. It's become a nice tradition these past several months. (Did I just say several months?!)
But this past Friday, Kailey asked if she and Micah and baby Kaiden could come over Sunday for worship. That sounded like a great idea! In fact, a couple weeks ago I blogged here about hoping to see that sort of thing happen!
She brought homemade cinnamon rolls and the six of us sat on the couches and watched the worship service. I can't say we were terribly disciplined about it. We tended to talk during it. Having people over is typically a social event and this felt like a social event. But I think if we were to do it more often, we would become accustomed to settling in and being present to it.
We gathered for worship. We raised our hands for the blessing. Then we started getting ready for lunch. I think that, to do it over again, I would ask if we could pray together when it was done. That would've been nice. Next time.
But yesterday we started getting ready for lunch. Then six others joined us for a total of twelve. We had invited them Friday, saying that we'd grill burgers if everyone else just brought something to share. We didn't organize it too much, we just let people bring what they wanted. And we ate good. Afterward we had some homemade cheesecake that Wendy had made the day before.
Then we all hung out for awhile, and eventually people went home. It was a good morning/afternoon.
I napped a little.
Then at 6:30pm we had some teens over for our weekly Bible study. We talked about the morning teaching, reading through the scriptures I had used, plus some. We talked about the challenges and encouragements of what it means to follow Christ in this. And we prayed for each other. We finished those conversations by probably 8pm, and then most of them just hung out talking for another couple hours.
I went upstairs to join Wendy who was on her weekly Zoom meeting with her family in Oregon and Paraguay. They do that every week for at least a couple hours. I said my heys and then came back downstairs to join the other conversation. Soon enough Wendy came back downstairs, about the same time people were heading out.
Then Bekah went up to her room, and Wendy and I spent a couple hours on the couch watching our latest TV series.
It was a full day. A very full day. Our house was full. I'm a little tired, but my heart is full.
I write all that to give a real world picture of what it can look like to open your house. Because my dream is that, even when the church building is closed, the church homes are open. And my hope is that even after the church building reopens (again), the church homes will still be open.
Most people like that idea, but don't want to do it themselves. It feels overwhelming because we imagine it as a huge thing like what Wendy and I did yesterday. And that would be overwhelming if it was every day, or if it fell to one person to make it all happen.
But I want to put you at ease here: It doesn't have to be like that. Really, it could be a 90 minute experience with no more to eat than crackers and juice. (Seriously. I'll get to that.)
If you've paid attention to my teaching for any length of time, you've heard me cite Acts 2:42. The whole paragraph goes to verse 47. It describes how the believers related to each other after the Holy Spirit was poured out onto them. Let's read it and then :
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Can you imagine if that was our experience? Picture us doing life as a family of believers, where we spend time discussing the scriptures together, and praying together, but we also just do life together. We help each other in tangible ways, we meet together regularly in whatever we relate to as "the temple courts," we eat together in our homes, we share our lives with others and they share their lives with us. We're family. Imagine that.
Again, most of us like the thought, but pull back at the implementation. We like going to church, but going to someone's home, or having them come over to ours?! We've lost that as a culture. We're intimidated by that.
To be sure, not everyone has a hospitality gift, and this certainly is opportunity for "hosts" to shine. But you don't have to be great at hosting parties to be good at having people over for worship.
In fact, I want to dumb this down so everyone can consider doing it. Here's my handy dandy step by step guide to having people over for worship. (Disclaimer: I'm not suggesting a reckless exposure to Covid. Try to embrace the heart of what I'm saying and then use your best judgment in the application of it.)
Step by Step Instructions for Opening Your Home for Worship
Parts of that may feel natural to you, and other parts may not, but none of it needs to feel forced. Just open up your home this Sunday to one or two others, maybe three. Ask them to come worship with you! And let's see what God does among us.
Who might you invite this week?
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.