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.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.