In yesterday's message I read extensively from a prayer that I prayed on July 19. I said that I would put it here in my weekly blog. You'll find it below. But first, some context.
I believe God wanted to use 2020 to prepare us for something better than what we had been doing.
You'll hear this reflected in my prayer journal entry from five months ago. But I don't think my prayer caused it. I think it recognized it.
I believe the Spirit of God is moving among many, fanning something to flame, and that it is going to be good, even if the burning up of what has been causes discomfort.
Tonight is our last of six prayer nights that we have devoted to discerning our future together.
We started it in October and have now spent five evenings praying silently together, guided by questions and statements.
This evening at 7pm we will open our mouths. We will pray as the Spirit leads. I want to hear how he has been inspiring you to pray. And I want you to hear how he has been inspiring others to pray. This is a vital piece to our discernment together.
So please, if you are at all able, join together for prayer, tonight at 7pm, either in person at the church or online. And let's expect God to move.
And now, how I've been praying.
On Sunday July 19, I wrote this in my prayer journal:
“Lord, I pray that this is a shaking.
"Shake the world. Shake your Church. Shake us so that whatever is poorly built crumbles. Let whatever of our systems and confidences that doesn’t belong, or that no longer serves its purpose — let it succumb to the shaking. Let the surface cracks form under the stress. Let the cracks run deep. May they fill with water and soften the mortar and dry rot the wood so that the failure is more than cosmetic, deeper than stucco.
“Yes Lord, whatever does not belong, let it give way quickly to this shaking. Cause the foundation to heave; let it rise and fall a second time; may it fall the third time before rising up powerfully, even rising to prominence on the global landscape. But not the prominence of castles and celebrities. Lord, cause the name of Jesus and the foundation of his authority to rise up suddenly out of the rubble. I wait for this Lord. I wait for this!”
I wrote out the words of 1 Corinthians 3:10-23,
“...Each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
"Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
"Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’; and again, ‘The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.’ So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
My spirit resonated in agreement:
“Yes Lord. Yes Lord!
“A castle is a fortified residence from which rulers rule, protected by walls [and] moats... A palace is a luxurious residence for royalty surrounded by plush gardens... But a temple is a building devoted to the worship of God, and regarded as the place of his dwelling.
“Yes Lord! 1 Corinthians 3:16. Yes Lord.
I prayed again with increasing focus, knowing the impact of what I was asking:
“Let the castles and palaces stand empty, in disrepair. Let them be shaken. Let their walls crack and crumble. May all who find shelter in them run for safety. May they take the scriptures and the doctrines and the gospel witness, even the testimony of your grace throughout the ages, clutching them close as they flee. And may those found wearing robes of ancient tradition not stop to disrobe. And may those found wearing the coveralls of knowledge and wisdom not stop to remove them.
"But let all who are decorated with the jewelry of self-interest, self-lordship, and the lording of themselves over others; and the costumes of importance and prestige; who carry the blueprints and maintenance schedules of castles and palaces; who are attended by servants conscripted from their brothers and sisters, having convinced them it is a means to worldly gain; who teach man-made doctrines and tolerate wickedness — may they rip the clothes from their body as if entangled by them! May they thrash in panic to free themselves from them! May they run naked into the streets to be covered in dust and repentance, to be washed by the water of your word, to be clothed in righteousness.
“Lord, by your decree, cause the castles and palaces to be shaken apart, to be revealed by the fire. Cause the foundation of Jesus to show itself without crack. And may the living temple of God be established on it without pomp and circumstance, but rather with an eruption of praise and devotion."
I finished my prayer that day with these three appeals:
“Restore your Church.
“Rebuild your temple.
“Renew our love.”
It's those same three appeals that I invite you to pray with me.
I have plenty of ideas about what God is calling us to. A lack of ideas is never my struggle. But to not run ahead of God in my desire to do something significant or to lag behind God for fear of disappointing people--this requirements discernment, and that invites the prayers of many.
And so I invite you to help discern our future together. What is God calling us to in 2021?
I ask you to pray this pray with me because I believe God is going to answer it. And when he does, those who have not seriously prayed it will perceive his answer as a devaluing of things they value. But those who pray it eagerly, even if his answer disrupts things we have enjoyed, will rejoice at how he is restoring his Church, rebuilding his Temple, and renewing our love--in ways we wouldn't have thought possible a year ago.
Sunday I called this the start of a conversation. It actually started some time ago. It starts with prayer.
It's all my children have ever known. For years and years, we have been part of hosting a Christmas Eve Worship Service.
We go to church, we sing songs, we hear from scripture, we light candles while singing Silent Night, then we blow them out and wish our church family a merry Christmas.
And for me, when I blow out my candle, it signals a shift in my thinking. At that moment I stop carrying ministry responsibilities and start simply being a husband, a dad, a grandpa, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend.
The Christmas Eve service fills my heart with love, joy, and peace. But what my family does after that worship service was actually born out of exhaustion.
We go out to eat.
We started it when we had multiple Christmas Eve services that followed Christmas Concerts, and children's programs, and year end parties, and all that stuff. But even when we found a better balance in life, we still continued to go out to eat after the Christmas Eve service.
We've done it for years. We pick one of the two or three restaurants that are open, and there we slink cheerfully into our chair, waiting patiently for the overworked staff to prepare our food. We're usually a small crowd, but we make it a point to bless our servers as they bless us. Then we tip them generously and head home.
Once at home, we open one gift from under the tree. It's always the same gift but we pretend we don't know what it is. Then, we eventually head to bed to rest up for a wonderfully full time of family the next day.
That's how we do Christmas Eve. I love Christmas Eve. And I know I'm not alone.
We may all have different traditions that surround it, but for so many of us the Christmas Eve service marks a time of sacred remembrance about the Incarnation. Even for those whose faith doesn't order their life much at other times, the Christmas Eve candle lighting service is a religious rite that makes the season feel just right.
This year we're not going to do that.
This year we're not meeting at the church.
This year we're not going out to a restaurant.
And it was my decision.
I'm not a fan of my decision to not have an in-person Christmas Eve service. And I know I'm not alone. But there's a reason for it.
There haven't been many easy decisions this year regarding whether and how churches should limit gatherings to help slow the spread of the virus. And the fact that it's politicized complicates the decision.
We all have our opinions about whether churches should "be open" or not. My sense is that our church is pretty much in the middle about it. That's where I am.
We take the virus as a serious threat that is worthy of precaution and prudence. (We've lost friends and family to it.) But we also believe fellowship with other believers is worth some level of risk. So we try to strike a balance.
That's why our campus is open for worship services. But a month ago we were looking at an uptick in Covid cases in our area, and our crowds were starting to grow with the return of our winter friends from the north. (In fact, we're still not sure what to expect of our winter crowds.)
Christmas Eve is typically a large service for us. And I can imagine a scenario where we would have to turn people away when we still have physical seating available. And I can also imagine a scenario where we decide to offer multiple services (as some of my pastor friends are doing) and then hardly anyone shows up because they want to avoid the crowds.
It was a decision without a clear right or wrong. But it was still a decision that had to be made. And it wasn't all about Covid.
As I was considering it, I was also considering my conviction that, as Christians, we don't need to crowd into auditoriums to really worship God. In fact, this year has challenged our assumptions about that. And I believe that what's even more meaningful is the challenge of worshiping together in smaller fellowship groups.
Don't get me wrong. I love singing in a big crowd. And I'm aware that the presence of a crowd gives a sense of authority to the gospel as it's preached. I think there's a place for that. I also think it's easier to do that.
But I think learning to worship God in our living room is more important than learning to worship God in an auditorium. And so, part of my decision was to take advantage of this opportunity to help us grow deeper in the practice of our faith, and in our idea of what it means to worship God.
And so, I made the decision that isn't my personal favorite. But it's the one I stand behind because it has a reason bigger than Covid. In fact, it's actually using Covid to help us learn to worship in our homes. And to see worship as part of how we celebrate Christmas in our homes.
This year we're asking you to host the Christmas Eve service at your home.
If your family and friends are all believers, learn to be comfortable worshiping together when you're not at church.
But even if you're surrounded by people who don't share your convictions or passions, ask them to share something you find meaningful, even if just to be nice. And I'm not talking about tricking them into worshiping. (You can't do that.) I'm talking about you deciding that your living room will be a worship center in your life. And that it will be obvious to those you love that you don't just go to church; you have decided to live your whole life in worship of Jesus Christ.
The worship service will consist of songs and scripture, concluding in candle lighting while we all sing Silent Night together.
It will be hosted at 5, 7, and 11pm.
Pick whatever time works for you and gather your friends and family in your home. Or accept an invitation to their home. (Don't do more than you feel is prudent, but do as much as you feel is prudent.)
Setup your TV or other device to watch at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
I think the TV is best, but you can also gather around a laptop, or even meet in the same room together all watching your own phones. The goal is to honor God by gathering for fellowship and worship in a common place with your family and closest friends.
Turn off the lights and participate.
Sing along as the worship team leads us in "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "The First Noel," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "O Holy Night." Open your heart and mind to the scriptures as I read them. And then, as we conclude with "Silent Night," light a candle and pass the flame to the person next to you. As you do, pray blessing over them, that Christ would be formed in them, and that their lives would be filled with love, joy, and peace in the coming year.
Then do what you do to celebrate Christmas. And let it pour out of a heart that has worshiped the Lord.
My hope and prayer is that by doing this we will bring worship right into the rooms where we live, and right among the people with whom we do life. This is where worship belongs.
Tonight is our fifth of six Monday night prayer meetings in which we're asking God to lead us clearly into next year.
I believe a change is coming, and has already come (I'll say more later), that will affect the larger church. And because of that, we need to decide how we'll respond as a congregation in 2021. So the overseers called us to a season of prayer about it, and that's what we've been doing since October.
Tonight let's pray a Christmas prayer together. 7pm at church or online.
Our last prayer meeting was the Monday before Thanksgiving, if you can believe it. In that week's teaching I called us to give thanks even for the hard things in life, so we did that.
We started by giving thanks for the blessings that are easy to recognize. As we prayed I was moved by the Spirit to read the names of all the people we've baptized in my eleven years here. Can you believe it's 101? We thanked God. He's so good.
Then we spent time giving thanks for the blessings that are harder to recognize, like disappointments and sorrows. And as we prayed I was moved to read the names of all the people we've laid to rest. Can you believe we have said final goodbyes to 169 people? As hard as that is, we thanked God for our time with them, and his grace toward them. He's so good.
Then, with thanksgiving in our hearts, we spent time with these prayer starters from the prior meeting:
And then we concluded our time prayerfully reflecting on the questions we've asked ourselves at each of our prayer meetings:
Tonight we will spend time praying for God to restore to us the joy of our salvation.
Yesterday, I taught a difficult truth (here's the 20 minute explanation), that anyone who is unwilling to let contrition do its work will never fully experience joy — the joy of salvation.
Regret and remorse are natural. When we do bad things we feel bad. We should. Contrition serves its purpose by causing us to call out to God for mercy. It's there that we fully appreciate his forgiveness. Contrition is not about beating ourselves up over past sins, it's about feeling broken where we've shown that we are in fact broken, so that we can find healing.
Humanism comes in many forms. It often teaches that contrition is bad. And that really shows its head at Christmas when many look to have their "faith in humanity restored." What we really need is to have our "faith in humanity exposed." What we really need is faith in a God who is eager to redeem a fallen humanity!
As I said yesterday, one of the most popular "gospels" is that we are all basically good people with a God spark in us that Jesus came to fan into flame. That sort of thinking leads us to devote ourselves to ourselves with a goal of self-improvement and self-actualization. it's a false gospel with a false devotion.
The true gospel is devotion to God with a goal of glorifying him. And it begins with a brokenness about our sin. It doesn't stay there because it does receive forgiveness. But if it doesn't start there it doesn't receive forgiveness.
It's counter-intuitive that the gateway to joy is contrition. But what's become intuitive to so many of us doesn't work. And we have depression and anxiety to show for it.
Let's learn to prayerfully embrace contrition as a good path that leads to joy.
Tonight we'll gather for prayer at 7pm in the auditorium or online.
We'll spend the first part of our time in personal reflection, allowing contrition to do its work as we pray to God: "Restore to us the joy of your salvation and grant us a willing spirit to sustain us."
Then, as we've been doing, we'll pray through the emphases of the first four nights and conclude at 8pm.
Finally, mark your calendar for the last Monday in 2020 (December 28th) so we can all spend time praying together, hearing how God has been leading our prayers of discernment.
See you tonight.
It's an odd phrase: "this Grace of Giving."
Paul uses the phrase in his second letter to the Corinthians. He uses it to describe an offering given by believers living in poverty. Then he uses it to encourage believers not living in poverty to also excel in this grace of giving.
It's natural to give out of abundance. When we have more than we need, we can give an enthusiastic gift to help someone meet their needs. It's a gift of gratitude. And it makes us feel good. It's a response to what we perceive as the grace of abundance.
But when we don't have enough, it's not natural to be generous. To give away some of what we need to help someone with what they need doesn't make sense. And yet, to do so is a gift of gratitude for what we do have. Sharing in each other's burdens is a grace in itself, even when the grace is by necessity, somewhat mutual.
Scripture says that for anyone to give away money, whether out of poverty or abundance, it is a "grace of giving."
Here's how he said it in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5: "We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us."
And then he challenged the Corinthian believers to follow their example by completing their own act of grace. He wrote in verse 7, "Since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving."
Today I want to report on our church's "grace of giving."
We concluded last Sunday's worship service with our fall "Generosity Offering." As I set it up, I told you that I would be content with whatever God led you to give.
I meant that personally, but also on behalf of the leaders of our church. I didn't ask their permission to say that. I just know it to be true. So I said that.
I even chose in the moment not to read my notes about where we stand financially as a church. I had planned to, but in the moment, not only did it feel unnecessary, it felt wrong. Not morally wrong, just less good than not reading it. So I didn't.
I just wanted God to provide however he wanted to provide.
I just wanted to invite our church to "excel in this grace of giving" as a privilege.
I just wanted to see what God would do if the offering was a grace given, not a burden imposed.
Here's how I see it: What you give is between you and God. But whether you give is between you and me.
I don't mean that as as "between you and me as your pastor." I mean it as between you and me as family. And between me and you as family. And between you and others in the church as family. We are in fellowship together, so we share the costs of being together.
And scripture says that the goal is equality. But not that we all give the same amount. It's that we all give what we are able.
Paul wrote in verse 11 that each person should give according to their means, and he explained in verse 12, "For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have."
He elaborated: "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written [in Exodus 16:18]: 'The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.' ” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
This has always been my desire as well.
And so, on Sunday I just left it between you and God. I didn't tell you how much we need.
Of course it's reasonable to let the church know where we stand financially.
On the one hand, you should want to know so that you can help meet the need. On the other hand, you should want to know that we are being responsible with what's already been given. As Paul wrote in verses 20-21, "We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man."
So, in an email a couple weeks ago, I explained where we stood. And then I included it as part of last week's blog post. I won't say it again here. You can go read it if you didn't the first time. But that was based on October financials. (Members may request financial statements anytime by calling or emailing the office.)
Last week we closed out November, so the picture is becoming more clear. We still have one month to go. But our November financials show a year-to-date loss of $33,457 — which really isn't bad considering our receipts are down almost $100,000!
But "not bad" isn't good enough. We want to live within our means, so to that end we have given opportunity to the church to meet the need, and to excel in this grace of giving.
So what came in?
At the end of the service I mentioned the need in general terms, said we would be content with whatever comes in, we spent time in prayer, we sang a song of joy, and then we concluded our worship service.
I heard one story of a couple who had come prepared with one check, and during worship they were prompted to write another check in the same amount. Double their offering. No person asked them to. And when the man told me about it, I didn't ask how much it was. I don't need to know. The Lord prompted them to give it, they obeyed, and I am filled with joy and satisfaction that they excelled in this grace of giving.
Others have asked me what we brought in. I know they gave, but I don't know how much. I'm content to know that they did. And I'm at peace knowing that the church is excelling in this grace of giving.
And I'm pleased to say that as of Tuesday's mail, our Generosity Offering has brought in $32,216.
We still need to meet our December expenses, but on behalf of the staff and overseers, thank you so much for excelling in this grace of giving. And to those who continue to prioritize the church in your weekly giving as well, I give special thanks.
God loves a cheerful giver. May he cause you to reap as generously as you have sown, having all that you need, that you might abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.