It's an odd question: Has God blessed you? How we answer it depends more on how we see life than what we have in life.
The other night as I was falling asleep I just began to thank God for all the blessings in my life: "Thank you Lord that I can breathe. Thank you that I can see. Thank you that I can hear... read... think... feel pain... feel pleasure... walk... speak..."
I thanked God for people I get to be in relationship with. I thanked God for people in my life who are easy to love, and for the people who exhaust me, who challenge me, who cause love to feel like a work out.
I thanked God for prosperity and scarcity at different times in my life -- sometimes both at the same time but in different sectors of my life. I thanked God for food on the table and a roof over my head and wheels between me and the road.
I thanked God for everything I could think of, even things I can't think of right now.
When we pause to thank God for everything, it orients our whole life in worship.
When we participate in offerings at church, we often set it up as a gift of thanks. And it is. But let's just admit that it's a weird concept to say that we give thanks to God for his gifts by giving some of it back. I mean, we don't do that with people. Why would we do it with God?
But when we talk about tithing,, we often say it that way. We talk about giving some of the blessings back to God as a way of saying thanks. I've said it that way often. I learned it somewhere along the line. But it's just weird, right?
I think there's a better way to say it:
The offering is how we share God's blessings.
Rather than just letting go of money, we should bless others with it.
Use God's blessings to bless others.
When we learn to live this way, we start to see how often the $10 we received is because someone else received $100 and gave some to us. And it came right when we needed it. And we counted it as a gift from God.
And we learn that the dozen roses were given as an expression of love from someone else who had just been encouraged. And the sandwich we just received is often 90% of someone else's sandwich who really didn't need to the whole thing to survive.
God has blessed each of us in various ways. And anything he has given us should be used to also bless others. This is the best way we can say thanks.
Bless God by blessing others with the blessing you have received from him.
The better question is this: "How has God blessed you?" And the extension of that is this: "In what way has God blessed you with enough that you can bless others?" This is the heart behind tithing, and participating in offerings. As scripture says, the goal is not that one person would receive too much and another person would go without, but that there would be equality in meeting the needs of the family of God.
On March 14 we'll collect a Generosity Offering.
We take up two generosity offerings a year as a way of supplying for the ministries at SCC. Our church is very seasonal, and this allows people who attend here during the winter months to help with the costs associated with it. Any help is appreciated.
So my appeal is this. If God has blessed you with more than you need, would you share it with the family of believers at Sarasota Community Church? Just bring a gift in keeping with the blessing we have received.
Yesterday I challenged everyone to read through James this week. Look for every occurrence of the word "brothers" or "brethren" or the phrase "brothers and sisters" and pay attention to what it says when it says it.
I said to write down what it says, then do what it says.
Now, to be clear, "brothers and sisters" is rarely the point. It's the context of the point. If you received a letter from me addressed to you personally, the point of the letter wouldn't be "dear you." The "dear you" would say how you're to hear it. Similarly if you received a letter from me addressed to "Members of Sarasota Community Church" it creates context about how to hear it.
In this we're reading things addressed (so to speak) as "dear brothers and sisters," or "dear family."
I'll walk through the first chapter, just to give an example of how I would do it.
Example #1: Verse 2
2Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Just thinking out loud about that, I notice that James starts out his letter writing about trials. And when he does, he addresses his comment to us as "brothers and sisters." And then he says that not only do we need to persevere in trials, but there is value in the perseverance it produces for us. We can read that as a personal challenge or lesson, which it is of course, but we can also read it as family.
He is writing to us as family of his. And he is writing to us as family of each other. When we face trials, we do it as family.
What does it say to do as family? Persevere under trial. We might add "as family" or "together." So I might write it as this: "Persevere together under trial." And today I will do that with whatever I face.
Example #2: Verse 16
16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
As I read that, it doesn't really sound like the gifts of God are a threat of deception, so I read what comes before it to see if the statement is referencing what has already been said. And sure enough, verses 13-15 help it make sense:
13When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. 16Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters...
How I think it through, James is writing about temptation, and the threat of deception, and he addresses it in the context of family. There must be value in recognizing and resisting deception together.
So what is he saying to do? "Make sure you're not deceived by temptation." And if I add the "family" or "together" emphasis, I might write it out as this: "Together, watch out for deception so that you don't give into temptation." And I prayerfully renew my devotion to do that today.
Example #3: Verse 19
19My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry...
Again, thinking out loud: When James writes to us about how to hear better, and how not to lose our temper, it seems obvious that he'd put it in the context of relationship. But I wonder how often we try to conquer these things on our own? What if we actually looked to each other as family to help each other do those things? What if we actually confessed our short comings to each other? What if we said, "I'm sorry, I was too quick to criticize," or "I should've listened to what you were saying before I answered." And what if we said, "I don't feel like you've really heard me. Can I have your undivided attention to really hear what I'm saying, and then I'd love to hear what you have to say about it." What if the family of believers was the context in which, not only are our shortcomings magnified, but where they're overcome?
That's how I think this through.
So what is James saying to do? "Don't talk over each other, and don't be so quick to perceive insult or lose your temper. Instead, take time to listen to each other as family." And so I take that to heart today, not just to study it, but to actually do what it says. This will affect how I converse with people. It should.
So that's how I do the first three occurrences in James. Read the rest of James for yourself.
Learning to study scripture is worth your time, and not beyond your reach.
Study not just to learn what it teaches. Study to do what it says. And in this week's lesson, learn to notice what scripture says about being "brothers and sisters" in Christ. And then put it to action.
Again, if you didn't hear yesterday's message yet, you can watch it here.
Your brother in Christ,
Yesterday, after the message, someone thanked me for the strong message. Another said it's the best sermon they've ever heard. Someone else thanked me for preaching the hard truth. But then a close friend of mine asked me: "But do you think people are hearing what you're saying?"
I live with that question.
Here's what I've been saying.
The times are hard, and hard times call for patient endurance. It may feel like the world is falling apart, but we should receive this as encouragement that we are in the Last Days. Just make sure that you're a Follower of the Way and not just just a follower of a spiritualized version of the American Dream. The American Dream is great, but it's not the gospel. The gospel is not about just having a better life.
In fact, if you want to grow your faith, devote yourself to these four things: the apostles' teachings, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and to prayer. That is the simplest expression of what it means to be Church! And yes, that highlights the fact that our larger view of church is pretty narrow. We tend to come to church for a worship experience that we enjoy. We get that wrong about worship: worship isn't for you, it's from you. Worshiping God is giving him our entire life.
But we tend to see church as something that helps us get better. And it does, I'm sure. But I think the way we've been doing church has, in some ways, made us worse rather than better.
I keep an eye on the Church. And as I see how attached we are to our above ground systems and structures, I wonder: Would our faith survive underground if it had to? That's a disturbing thought because I'm afraid it wouldn't. Like, I'm afraid that if any of the things we call "church" were taken away, our faith would feel very unfamiliar to us. If we ever had to abandon the sacred things we've made out of "stone, wood, and paper," I wonder if we would feel abandoned by God.
That thought burdens me because, for many, I think the answer is Yes, we would feel abandoned by God. And we just might abandon our faith.
So that's why I keep preaching what I'm preaching about why God has been shaking the Church. He's trying to show us a better way. He's inviting us to a better practice of our faith, and to (I think) a better imagination of what it means to be Church.
There's so much wrong with the Church -- meaning the way we do church. We have run ourselves ragged under a "church growth model" where we think that increasing the size of an organized body of believers with a mission statement, is the same as making disciples. (It's profoundly not.) And because of that confusion, we have become dependent on pastors and the programs they're able to produce, as if that's the solution to this world's problems. If things go bad, hire a better servant. And now we have weak (worn out) pastors and weak (lazy) parishioners to show for it.
I'm not complaining about you for me; I'm fine.
I'm "complaining" about us for God; we're not fine!
And so I believe that he has brought this shaking of our faith to show the quality of our faith. And much of the things that we relate to as faith are failing under the shaking.
I pray that we don't squander this opportunity to build faith well. Because I don't think the shaking is over. That's just my sense. I believe there is danger ahead. It's a storm that will cause the faith of many to slide off of the road, and the love of many to grow cold.
But, like I said yesterday, it's not a storm that's coming, it's a storm that's already here. It's up ahead, in the pass between here and where we're going. And if we keep on going like we're going, we're going to suffer loss for it.
I know it's a sober word.
When I read yesterday what Paul said in Acts 27:21-25, I had the sense that the same could be said for most churches in this season: "We are going to suffer loss to the structures and systems that have been carrying us, but God has graciously given us the lives of all who remain true to him."
I'm not sure how long I'll keep having to bring this message, or how long people can bear it. And I don't know if it's possible to "pastor" a church with a hard message week after week -- like I don't know if people will tolerate it for long. But I also don't believe it's possible to "pastor" a church without doing what I can to protect it from any danger I see.
And all I know is that, week after week, when I ask him to give me a message of comfort, he keeps impressing upon me to bring a message of warning. And so I do.
Am I claiming to speak as a prophet?
I'm not predicting the future. I'm speaking only as one who is looking into the sky and seeing evidence of a storm brewing. And who is looking up ahead and seeing that the storm is already here. Call it what you will. I think of it as discerning the scriptures, discerning the times, making observations, and hearing what the Spirit is saying to the churches. And declaring what I believe is God's will.
These days it's a hard message. But it's not doom and gloom. If you have opportunity to laugh and enjoy life, do it! I'm able to find joy in many things these days.
But don't forget to be sober-minded about these things. We shouldn't be hyping each other up with a message that everything's going to be fun if we just believe. Our message is one of hope that, whatever God brings tomorrow, he will be faithful in it, and those of us who are faithful through it will see the day after "tomorrow."
So we live with sober concern about what we face, and a reasoned joy about what we will see.
We are not yet as we should be. I don't say that as an indictment as much as an assessment. We have been given everything we need for living a godly life. So let's do that. And let's toss off everything that so easily entangles.
Thank you for listening.
I take the responsibility very seriously, and am intent on not squandering your attention. I know that I'm one of many that you get to listen to. And I'm also aware that most people don't hear everything I say. And everyone forgets most of what I say.
This week would you take 5 or 10 minutes with each of the following sermons to refresh your memory? (They're the same as I linked to above.) They represent 12 messages that I want to make sure you've heard. Just listen long enough to be reminded of what I said. And if you realize that you haven't heard one yet, listen the whole way through. I believe this is developing a complete thought that we should all be considering personally and corporately.
If you didn't hear yesterday's message would you please take time to do so? It's important to the conversation we're having as a church. And it sets up things I need to say next.
Click here to watch the 25 minute version.
I had to say what I said because some of the things we have seen as essential to the practice of our faith simply didn't fare well under the shaking of the past year. The disruptions have been a test of our faith. But it's not only a test to see whether we will keep the faith. It's a test of the quality of our faith. It's a test to see if what we have built into our life survives the trials of life.
Some parts of our faith failed the test.
As I've watched Christians from various traditions and every walk of life respond to the disappointments of the past year, many have a faith that's pretty wobbly. It doesn't survive the shaking.
I don't mean that as condemnation, but as the grace of truth.
As human beings we're very resilient. When something falls over we stand it back up. When something falls apart we patch it back up. But some things shouldn't be stood back up. Some things shouldn't be patched back up.
And so I felt it necessary to name three things that should not be picked back up. At least, if you do pick it back up, let it be that you prayerfully considered the correction and determined that God wanted you to pick them back up.
To be clear, it's up to each of us to decide whether we do.
But I'm saying we shouldn't.
What do you think?
Did these things stay strong under the testing?
Did they fulfill their promise?
Were they elastic enough to not tear and strong enough to not shear?
And I guess the most telling question for any of us is this:
If anything about our faith failed the test, can we bear the thought of building something better that can't be shaken?
Again, listen to the whole teaching for understanding. But I'll tell you right now what the three things are. These were revealed by the shaking as not able to survive the shaking.
Now, I heard lots of amens on the first and second ones. I figured I would. And yet I'm sure some were offended. It may be that they heard me to say something I didn't say, or that they really do believe the first two are essential to our practice of the faith.
But the third one was pretty quiet. I expected it to be.
Let me clarify briefly for each of the three things. I want to make sure you know what I'm not saying, so that you can hear what I am saying.
1. I personally voted for the candidate whose policies most lined up with my moral convictions and fiscal sensibilities, and that's not what I mean by having "hope in earthly kingdoms."
I'm actively interested in politics, and have my own opinions about the next four years. I think it's good for Christians to be engaged wherever we have civil responsibility. That's not what I'm talking about when I say "hope in earthly kingdoms." We can participate in the political process without putting our hope in earthly kingdoms. But we must not put our hope in earthly solutions to address spiritual problems. We are already receiving an eternal kingdom. And it is not represented by any earthly kingdom even if there is a nominal association with it.
2. I believe God heals, and God provides, but not always.
Lazarus was raised to life the first time he died, but he wasn't the second time he died. We all die. That means that every single one of us will one day experience the finality of God's decision to not heal us of whatever fatality befalls us. (That is, if we're not still alive when he returns.)
God doesn't always heal. In fact, God always doesn't heal, at least once in our lives.
Likewise, the faith chapter (Hebrews 11) mentions heroes of the faith who went about destitute, living in caves, some of them never receiving what they earnestly believed for, and yet they are listed as exemplary of what it means to have faith.
God doesn't always provide the things we ask for.
So, I don't believe that when someone gets sick or dies or loses money, it is attributable to a lack of faith. And I'm sad at how this "prosperity gospel" has lulled so many Christians into an expectation that if we have enough faith we won't have to suffer for our faith. That's the exact opposite of what scripture says.
3. Buildings and programs serve a purpose, but they are not essential.
My family lives in a building, and has various "programs" that help us accomplish the things of being a family. We call the building a house, and our programs are jobs, and a budget, and schedules, and a commitment to mow the lawn regularly.
The house and programs serve a valuable purpose. But having a house is not essential to being a family. It's just helpful. If the house goes away, we are still family. If the jobs go away, we are still family. "For better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part."
When we consider this, it helps us to realize what it really means to be family. And it helps us to make better decisions about things like houses, jobs, budgets, schedules, and commitments.
It's the same with the church. Buildings and programs serve a purpose, but they are not essential. If the building goes away we are still church. If the programs go away we are still church.
Until we can openly consider this, and allow it as fully true in our thinking, we will make bad decisions about buildings and programs. But when we remember that without them we are still church, we will be able to make good decisions about buildings and programs.
I'd love to hear from you about any of the above three things, but I'm especially asking you to engage with me about the third one.
What fears and hopes do you have when you hear me talk about buildings and programs not being essential? I ask because three weeks ago I said that we were starting a conversation as a church about this. And I mean that. I want it to be a conversation.
If you weren't here for that annual meeting, or if you just want to be refreshed on it, email me and I'll send you a link to the video of it. This conversation affects who we are as a church, and what we attempt to do as a church. I'd hate to make such decisions without you in the conversation.
So, watch the video from yesterday, and comment below about any of the above. And yeah, I'll be saying more about this next week. :)
Our annual members meeting is Sunday, January 10, at 5pm in person and online. We'll present a budget for the members to approve. But not unrelated to that, we'll look at last year and make plans for the coming year.
Anytime we talk money, or facilities, or business at all, we're talking mission. And anytime we talk membership, we're talking mission together.
Membership means we're in this together.
Of all the additional meetings we might ask of you, the annual members meeting is the closest we get to "mandatory."
This Sunday night you'll be asked to decide the budget for 2021 (which you'll get by email this week). But more importantly, we are beginning an active discussion about what is and isn't working, and what changes we need to make or avoid.
Even if you haven't officially become a member, if you consider yourself part of SCC's core group (meaning if you care about SCC), you shouldn't miss this. I know it's tempting to just let others attend and then report to you what happened, but that won't be as accurate as you being part of it. It also cheats others out of your perspective.
For that reason, we're making it so that everyone can attend in person or online. If you watch online, the chat feature will be active and we'll have someone in person to give the people on site a sense of the conversation online as needed.
We'll do our best with that. You just show up ready. Deal?
But what is this "conversation" anyway?
The sermons I've been preaching are setting up a very important conversation that we're getting ready to have as a church.
My "2020 Hindsight" sermon from December 27 set it up. This week's sermon, "What's Wrong With The Church," continued it. In both of them I made strong statements.
This coming Sunday morning I'll add to the conversation with a sermon called "What's Wrong With Your Pastor." If you've ever had a grievance with your pastor, this is for you. If you've never had a grievance with your pastor, this is for you. It continues the thought about why we do church like we do, and how I believe God is calling us to do better.
But I want to be clear: While these sermons are addressing and challenging things in the larger Church that need to be corrected, I'm also trying to expose how we've been affected (and sometimes infected) by the same things. And so, this Sunday evening's conversation will build off of all three sermons, and will be frustrating to follow if you haven't come prepared. So make sure that you've heard all three teachings (Dec 27, Jan 3, and Jan 10) before next Sunday night.
I know I didn't answer specifically what this "conversation" is, but if you pay attention to those three teachings, you'll start to get a sense.
Leaving it a bit mysterious.
Just do your homework. :)
Please pray for your overseers and pastors.
The affairs of our congregation are vested in this board of directors that we call the “Board of Overseers.” They provide oversight of our spiritual welfare, as well as the fiduciary, legal and financial affairs of the congregation. And the pastors are are assigned with the ministry of it.
Several months ago, in September, while discussing a year of uncertainties and facing a new year of opportunities, the overseers and pastors decided to "fast" from business meetings for three months and devote ourselves to prayer. Thank you to those who participated.
Tonight we reconvene to look over the budget for 2021. It's about as "businessy" as it gets.
But it's also as "missional" as it gets.
Our budget lives as a description of what we think is the best way to fulfill our mission while living within our means.
Several years ago we started using the actual income and expenses of one year to create the budget for the next. This both creates and relieves tension for me.
Throughout most of my ministry, the budgeting process has been treated as a "visioneering" process, where we're encouraged to dream prayerfully about what we'd like to do. And then from that we create a stretch budget that's within reach if everyone digs a bit deeper. The unspoken assumption of this process is that ministry takes money, so if we want to do more ministry we need more money.
But that has always created tension for me.
The unavoidable truth we all know is that we can be church without spending any money on doing church.
Seriously, if two or three believers meet in a living room, they are church.
So to tie money to ministry and ministry to money, and then to try to get everyone to give a little more money, has always created some tension for me. And the process of simply carrying over actual numbers from one year to the next has relieved that tension.
But it also creates tension because it lends itself to decline, not growth. Things we once valued get dropped for lack of funds. And then they get forgotten for lack of perceived opportunity. It's harder to drop something than to put it back in. Without tension we don't grow.
Scripture clearly says that money should be collected and used for specific things.
If we really take our cue from scripture, it gets pretty radical. Honestly I wonder how many of us would vote for a budget prepared to fulfill the following:
We “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (Malachi 3:10), holding it “in common” (Acts 2:44) to cover the expenses of fellowship and worship (Deuteronomy 14:22-24), by putting it “at the apostles’ feet” to be “distributed to anyone who has need” (Acts 4:35), so that there are “no needy persons among us" (Acts 4:34), as we "look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27), and support those who “direct the affairs of the church” and “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” so that they “receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18), even supporting missionaries to do the same for others (2 Corinthians 11:8).
How does that hit you?
We're okay financially.
Our expenses were covered for 2020. We'll bring a report on Sunday night. But by all indications, our needs were more than met this year. Hallelujah. Praise God. We're okay financially. And I am encouraged that God has seen fit through your generosity to sustain us. Amen.
And we don't have any big bombs that are waiting to drop. After a year of shaking, we are not facing great failures like some churches are dealing with. We're okay.
But we're not "okay" in other ways. Or maybe we are. It all depends on what we're trying to do and be. In fact, depending on what we decide, we might be way more than just "okay." We may be positioned to do something incredible.
That's what we need to start talking about Sunday night.
And I can't wait.
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).
"You can't take it with you!"
We’ve heard the axiom so many times that we don't give it a second thought. We use it to remind ourselves, "Don't waste so much energy accumulating things that don’t last!" Or we encourage ourselves, "Go ahead and use it up now! Better enjoy it while you can! You can’t take it with you!”
But what if we can take it with us?
Jesus said if you store up for yourself treasures on earth, it's a bad investment. Thieves steal, economies collapse, things decay. He said it's better to store up for yourself treasures in heaven where those things don't happen.
But he said it's not just because it's a more reliable investment. He said the reason is because, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21 NIV)
The Christmas season is a good time to look at what you treasure most.
And before you look forward, look back over the year and see what you've invested your treasure in. I find two questions helpful.
We throw our money at a lot of things. Some of the things we spend our money on have no eternal value, or even have eternally negative value! And other things that we say we value just don't show up at all in what we spend our money on.
Usually the disparity is much more grey than paying for "sinful things" and neglecting "holy things." It's paying for lesser things and not being able to pay for better things.
Look back over this year to see where your heart was. In times of uncertainty we really see our hearts! How did you spend your money? Where did you invest your time? What stories did you tell about the things you appreciate and value? Did your cash flow tell the same stories?
Where you spend your time and money tells you where your heart is really invested.
What if you do take it with you?
We say, "You can't take it with you!" and Jesus says, "That's not true! You DO take it with you!"
He drove the point home with a very black-and-white statement. What if there's not as much wiggle room here as we think? He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Matthew 6:24)
To be clear, how we spend our money doesn't determine whether we receive eternal life. We don't buy salvation. That's not our gospel. But what we spend our lives on does reveal how eagerly we are trusting and loving God in this life.
Many of us came to Christ knowing that we had racked up insurmountable "sin debt" by doing things that just shouldn't be done. But then we called out to God and he forgave us that debt! He wiped it clean!
When the Lord says, "Your sins are forgiven," it is the last word on sin. This is our gospel. All who turn to the Lord in repentance and faith will be saved. If you've done that, all your sins, your transgression, your debts, have been forgiven. Amen.
But the gospel is more than a debt relief program; it’s an investment that reaps eternal reward.
His last word on our sin becomes the first word on our love.
At the beginning of this Christmas season, consider how you are investing -- not just your money, but your life. And to speak of your life is to speak of whatever things you treasure.
Last week I sent a letter to everyone I could who has connected with SCC this year. In it I explained where we are financially and what is needed to break even this year. As pastor, I have that responsibility to let you know the church's year end needs. But honestly, my greatest desire is that you would be mature in your love and wise in how you invest your life. Because you ARE taking those things with you.
I've attached a copy of the letter below, with all the $$$ signs.
We'll take up a generosity offering as part of our worship this Sunday, but you can give anytime by clicking here. The principle laid out in scripture is that there would be equality in meeting the needs. And that's all I ask. Give in keeping with however God has blessed you.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.