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.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.