I was thinking this morning about my morning time with God. I've been doing it for 28 years. Sometimes I refer to it as my "devotions," but the truth is, I struggle to devote myself to it.
I do it. But I struggle to do it.
There are so many distractions. So many things I have to do. So many things that want me to pay attention to them. Some of them are worthwhile, like adding to my to do list, or responding to a text, or writing a blog or sermon. But some are worthless. (How can pulling up my phone to study a word from the biblical text turn into 15 minutes of watching videos?!)
I grab my coffee, I pull out my Bible, open it up on my lap, and read my phone. What's with that?
I don't believe faithfulness is measured by having a morning devotion. But I do believe spending time with God every morning increases faithfulness. In fact, I would say that my best experiences with God have been connected to this habit of getting alone with him, and devoting my attention to him.
When we spend time looking into the heart and mind of God through a prayerful reading of scripture, where we examine ourselves by it, it changes how we see God, how we see ourselves, and how we see the day itself. We become more grateful, more penitent, more sensitive, more caring, more loving, more patient, all those things. We fill up with love joy and peace!
But then we fill up our minds with the news, videos, memes, grams, snaps, tweets, and TikToks. Sigh.
This morning my reading had me in Revelation 1, where John said, "On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit," and then he describes a vision in which he hears from Jesus. It reminded me of Acts 10 where Peter was in a time of prayer and "fell into a trance" and saw a vision of Jesus. And that reminded me of Acts 22 where Paul described one time that he "fell into a trance" and saw a vision of Jesus.
I think I've always related to those things as a mystical grace that just sorta happened onto them. Maybe it was. And I don't think we're supposed to chase "trances" and "visions." But I do believe we're supposed to chase being in the Spirit.
To be "in the Spirit" is a choice that we make. It's something God invites us to, but he doesn't force us into it, or it into us. And sure, being "in the Spirit" can generally describe the life of someone who is surrendered to the Lord. We can talk about living a "Spirit-filled" life. But apparently, according to scripture, it can also describe a moment in that person's life that is uniquely "in the Spirit."
Peter, Paul, and John apparently set aside time to be "in the Spirit." I wonder if you do? Or if you will?
Today I am challenging you to do that, and I mean it in a very practical and yet spiritual way. Take time to be "in the Spirit."
When Wendy and I were dating as long-distance high school sweethearts, we got to know each other by letters, and then by phone calls. And in the phone call stage we would just sit on the phone together, sometimes not even talking to each other, just being together. And, if I can say it this way, we were simply being "into each other."
Will you take time to do that with God each day?
Take time to be "in the Spirit" today.
I did, and it is good.
In my office I have one wall painted with chalkboard paint. The last thing I wrote on it was written March 12, the day I decided to close down our public gatherings. It reads, "May, you will not recognize us."
On May 24 we reopened our campus to onsite worship and we did look different. Now as we close out June, we still look different. We have new faces. We're missing old faces. Everyone is still scattered sparsely throughout our large marked off auditorium. It feels like we're missing a bunch of people because they're not at 4041 Bahia Vista Street. But if you look at the sum total of people joining us onsite plus online, our "attendance" is actually double what it was this time last year.
Wow. Who knew?
Of course it doesn't feel that way. Only 25% of us meet onsite. The other 75% join us online, with 44% watching the service as it's streamed ("watch party" style), and 31% watching it on their own time (on demand).
If you look at the numbers we are now an online church with an onsite presence. We used to be an onsite church with an online presence.
What do we make of this? Is it the wave of the future?
If you listen to the chatter among the experts, some say churches should prepare to not see a return to "normal" for a couple years. Others think that's ridiculous, that people are just chomping at the bit to return. And others speculate that we'll never again see the kind of onsite attendance we used to, that online is the future of the church.
Personally, I think online is the future of the church. But I also believe we'll see a renewed interest in meeting onsite as health concerns subside. And I also believe that some people will realize they like online church better than onsite church, and it won't be because they're lazy Christians.
I'll say that again: It won't be because they're lazy Christians.
For generations "church attendance" was a measure of Christian faithfulness. We knew if a person was blacksliding because they stopped coming to church. But was that really the measure of Christian faithfulness? Most of us can think of many examples of lazy Christians who attend church faithfully.
What if there's a new way to be church? Honestly, much of what we think of as "being church" is really just being part of a cultural expression of church. That's not to say it's meaningless. To the contrary, it's very meaningful. But it's not the only meaningful expression.
And I do believe Christian fellowship is part of faithfulness. I just don't think Sunday morning church is necessarily the most meaningful fellowship. It can be. I just don't think it automatically is.
Like I said, I believe many of us will return to onsite worship gatherings where we express ourselves in the ways we find meaningful, even if less populated for a time. But I think we'll also see new expressions that we should embrace and celebrate, even nurture.
Not only do I imagine that those things will happen, I pray that they will, for the sake of God's kingdom. There certainly is something to the onsite gathering that will always be wonderful. But there is something about the online gathering that onsite doesn't offer. With onsite gatherings people come to church. But with online gatherings, church goes to the people.
Let's do both. And let's do it well. May God fill the world with love joy and peace as we sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship near and far.
I wonder how you have been relating to onsite and online church? And how do you see yourself relating to both in the future? Would you please help me understand by taking a minute to fill out this survey?
Like I do each week, I've made yesterday's teaching available in a shorter video on my YouTube channel so you can review it, but also to share with people on social media or by email. (Subscribe to the channel and click the bell icon to get notified every time I upload a new video.)
This week's message is especially important for this time. I believe God is calling us to carry the Kingdom of Heaven into the midst of the brokenness.
Often we think solutions to global problems need to be huge. I think they need to be personal. This is why you don't hear me proclaiming political or cultural solutions. That's not to say we shouldn't engage politically or culturally. To the contrary, be good citizens. But remember, we can't change the heart of a nation without changing the hearts of its citizens.
Laws may guide those with good hearts, and limit the actions of those with bad hearts. But laws don't change hearts. Likewise, protests may preach the need for change and sway decision makers, but protests don't change hearts. That's why we see such division. That's why people have more energy for fighting than or fixing what's wrong.
The scripture that guides me is Colossians 1:28-29, We proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end we strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in us.
The gospel is wisdom for what's broken. And it's power for what's weak.
"We proclaim Christ." Be encouraged this week to do the same. Let everything you say or post or do "proclaim Christ" as the first and most reliable solution. Carry the Kingdom of Heaven in your heart by being obedient to love, submitted to gratitude and joy, and assured by peace. Then carry it to those who are nearest you who seem to need it:
Pray for them. Serve them. Love them. Bring joy to them. Make peace with them. Encourage them. Lead them to faith. Encourage them to faithfulness. Be the gospel to them. Proclaim Christ.
Who in your circle needs hope and encouragement today? Who in your circle seems broken today? Would you share this week's video with them?
Watch the video and when your heart says Amen to it, click the "Share" button and post it to your social media, or send it in a private message or email with a personal note.
If the person is a believer, they will be reminded of what's important in this broken time. If they are not a believer (or have wandered from the faith) this will tell them how they can fix what's so broken inside them!
Let's bring the Kingdom of Heaven near those who are near each of us today. Let's begin the conversation with them.
It's easy to have a moment on Sunday where we feel inspired, but then wake up Monday and start looking for the next moment of inspiration. Today, I'm asking you to fan the flame of yesterday's inspiration so that it is Today's inspiration. Let it be said that when we come near anyone, "the Kingdom of Heaven has come near."
Today, carry the Kingdom of Heaven into the midst of brokenness.
Today, heal the sick.
Today, raise the dead.
Today, cleanse the leprous.
Today, drive out demons.
Today, let's fix the brokenness.
Yesterday I spoke about how we can choose peace. I started by saying how tired I am of all the conflict, but that I'm inspired that we can choose peace.
Within two hours I was standing outside a restaurant in full embrace with a black man, both of us weeping.
I asked him how the message came across. He said he's tired of everything being about "black and white." He told me, "We need to be concerned about people, not the color of their skin. We need to have empathy for each other." I couldn't agree with him more.
In life, when there is conflict and a door opens that allows us to escape that conflict, I am inclined to walk through that door. Most of us are, to some degree.
Sometimes that door is labeled "distraction." We can escape conflict by just distracting ourselves with humor, or Netflix, or ice cream, or whatever. That's not really escaping the conflict, it's just delaying it. And letting it get infected.
But sometimes the door is labeled "rebuke" and "correction" and "repentance" and "forgiveness." We should always choose that door when we see it. And when we do walk through that door, we should close the door behind us.
Many of us don't keep it closed though.
Think about where there's been broken trust in your life, and how easy it is to revisit the conflict whenever it feels more familiar than whatever other discomfort you're facing.
Someone hurts you at work, so you come home and remind your loved one of the time they hurt you. It's a familiar conflict. You know that you will win this argument so you open the door and pull the offender back into the room. Even though you've already forgiven them. It feels ugly but somehow it feels secure. You at least know how it ends.
We do this at a societal level too. And each of us is prone to interact with the things of society at a personal level. We pull out past offenses because the new offenses feel unstable.
And then we fight.
One person says, "Black lives matter!"
Someone else answers, "ALL lives matter!"
And the fight is on.
But we're not stupid. Every single one of us knows what both sides mean by it. Every single one of us. But it's a familiar fight so it's more comfortable than other conflicts. It feels ugly but at least we know how it ends.
My friend with black skin told me that we just need to be about people, not about whether they're black and white. He said we need to be about empathy, not about picking sides. And everything in me said amen to that.
But then he told me that he lives scared.
I don't. I mean I wonder if times might change to where I need to be scared. But I don't live scared.
He said whenever he's around white people he has to make sure that he smiles and keeps his palms facing outward. No possible show of aggression. If he's angry about something he's not allowed to let it show. If he's insulted, he's not allowed to let it show. If he's just not feeling happy, he's not allowed to let it show. He's tired of being scared of scaring white people, or giving an excuse to people who want to do violence to black people. He's tired of it being about black and white. He's tired of being black where it's about being black or white.
He was caught off guard by his emotions. The tears burst and he apologized. But then he just let go. And there we were, a black man and a white man, standing on a sidewalk crying. My back was to the street. I wondered what people were thinking. He always wonders what people are thinking.
I asked him, "As a black man, you drive into our mostly white neighborhood, pull into the driveway of this mostly white family, you get out of your car and walk up to our door and walk into our house without knocking?"
I felt like it was a question but it wasn't. It was just empathy. And he cried very tired tears. He is always making sure that no one sees him as a threat. Smile and wave. Say something funny. Even if you're not happy. Even if there's nothing funny.
I reminded him that he's a good man. I said, "But if you're around a 75 year old white woman who isn't sure who you are, you'll do whatever you can to make sure she feels safe around you, because you're a good man." He said, "Yes, of course." But he's just tired.
Finally I reached out and pulled him into my embrace. I had wanted to do it sooner, but wanted to let the conversation mature. I wanted to hear everything he had to say, but then it was time.
We held each other tightly, there on the sidewalk, in front of the plate glass windows of the restaurant where we had just eaten and joked and laughed together. And there we wept...
We held each other tightly and he thanked me. He thanked me for being "family." I told him I loved him. He told me the same.
We got into our respective cars. I broke down and wept more. He probably put himself together and found his composure again. But I felt his pain. I'm not sure I've felt it before.
And then I watched "the black man" drive through the parking lot. I told Wendy and Bekah, "And everyone right now is noticing a black man driving through the parking lot." That would be so tiring.
We all know what the phrases mean. We're not stupid. Whether the phrase is "black lives matter," or "all lives matter," or "blue lives matter", someone is just saying, "My life matters." And really they're asking, "Does my life matter?"
We can all argue semantics. We can all argue logic. We can all go tit for tat. We can all try to pull people back into past conflicts where we feel like we will win. It's familiar there. We're all so smart. So why are we so foolish?
This isn't about winning, this is about loving others as God has loved us.
I am pleading with all who are on the side of peace, all who are on the side of love, all who are following the way of Jesus, to make sure you're fighting the right fight. Let's keep this about loving people because they're people, and working hard to have empathy for each other, in the name of love, because we've been loved.
For that reason I am choosing to carry this response in my heart. I said it yesterday but it needs to be more than a statement in a sermon. I am carrying it at the surface of my heart so that it overflows easily onto the heart of anyone who wonders if they matter -- whether black, brown, blue, or all. And I would encourage you to do the same, saying it generously, as if spilling forth from a heart overflowing with the love of God:
"Your life matters."
I spoke very briefly yesterday about the killing of George Floyd, the protests, and the riots. As a general rule, I'm reticent to speak to events that are still unfolding and being politicized. These days it seems like that's everything.
I read this morning in 1 Peter 4 that those who have been called to preach or teach "should do so as one who speaks the very words of God," meaning clearly with confidence. It's tempting to rush into speaking confidently for God before hearing clearly from God.
I want my words to be reasoned and helpful. And if a situation is still unfolding or if everyone hears my words as making a political statement, it's hard to be that. Nevertheless, I do have something to say, even if not the final thing to say.
Teaching the wisdom of scripture in a time of social unrest feels like trying to teach a crowded theater how to safely evacuate after someone has already yelled "fire." They're too panicked to hear.
We can all reason that when people don't hear your words it's best to just lead the way. And when people don't notice you leading the way, it's good to take their arm and pull them to safety.
But what if they fight you? And what is safety?
To the shop owner whose store is being looted by opportunistic thieves, is safety just going home?
To citizens whose city is being set on fire by anarchists, is safety just getting out of their way?
To officers who fear for their lives, but who have sworn to uphold the law, is safety just standing down?
To blacks who fear for their lives, and feel unheard, is safety just being quiet?
To whites who fear being called racist if they don't say the right thing the right way, is safety just being quiet?
Two mixed-race boys call me Pop Pop. I can tell my grandsons all day long that they're just as much white as they are black, but it doesn't change that the world sees them as black. And I can say all day long that they actually have certain privileges that I don't have. But it doesn't change that I have certain privileges they don't. Or that I don't face the same kind of hatred they do.
Proverbs 18:13 says "To answer before listening -- that is folly and shame." And Proverbs 18:17 reminds us that "In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines."
Whether we're outraged at racism or rioting (and why can't it be both?) wisdom takes time to listen.
Our perspective is small. We think it's large and global but we're seeing the world through a little window called "the media." We only see what they show us. And then we interpret it as right or wrong by another little window called "our own experiences." Sure, we can flip channels and we should. We can try to look through multiple windows and we should.
Turn to FOX and you see people looting and destroying things. It's really happening.
Turn to CNN and you see people sitting peacefully in quiet protest. It's really happening.
Turn to social media and you will see the hate of racism. It's really happening.
And pay attention to social media and you will see people of all colors who are not racist, and who are working for peace. It is really happening.
But it seems like if anyone speaks about one reality without recognizing the other, people call them names. And if they speak of neither reality for fear of being misunderstood, people call them names.
Proverbs 26:4-5, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes."
It seems you can't win. Usually you just have to pick one and live with the consequences.
For those reasons, I'm reticent to say anything about current events, and yet I'm compelled to speak hope and reason today to a circle of people who call me "pastor." And if you care to speak the same hope and reason to those who call you family or friend, may God use it to bring hope and reason to the overlapping circles we call society.
Prudence calls us to be slow to judgment about people and their actions. But love calls us to be swift to action in rescuing the oppressed. And both prudence and love call us to be consistent in our judgments about what is right and wrong.
Here's my counsel:
And if #3 seems objectionable to you in any way, reread it as God telling you to do it. It's not written for you to agree with. It's written for you to learn from. Here it is again as we read it in James 3:13-18,
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Let's live as "wise and understanding," as beacons of light and hope, sowing peace and righteousness. For those who live by the Holy Spirit, there is such love joy and peace, even in the face of such great conflict. As believers, this world is not our home. But as we join together, Jesus is at home with us while we are in this world.
Psalm 120:7, "I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war."
Even if others are for war, let us work together for peace.
We met yesterday for the first time in eleven weeks. Most of us still watched online, but 75 of us ventured out. I trust each of us made the best decision we could. It was good to see your faces again.
As I reflect on my experience, I'm surprised at how hard it was to not greet people in the usual way. The joy of fellowship is more than a hand shake or hug, but it sure is expressed in it. Without those things it feels awkward. Once I caught myself forgetting to talk, like somehow wearing a mask meant I had to signal with my hands and eyes. It feels silly to admit that. And to admit that I felt a bit lonely in the crowd. But still it was good to be together.
The restoration of our in person gathering is a bit of a milestone, and it makes me thankful.
Thank you to everyone for adjusting so easily to the changes we've made over the past couple months, and then again yesterday. Thank you for following directions, following the guidelines, putting other people needs and opinions ahead of your own. In fact, this has been a great opportunity to demonstrate the "mutual submission" of Christian community where we look not only to our own interests, but each of us to the interest of the others. (Philippians 2:4)
In responding to this opportunity, my goal has been to create the safest environment for the most vulnerable among us. The strong should always care for the weak. In the midst of this uncertainty, we have taken precautions that may eventually prove to be unnecessary. But I believe we've been safe without being scared.
My goal has also been to cooperate with the governing authorities, that we would be a joy to serve, not a burden. Again, I believe we have shown respect for those who lead us as public servants.
And my goals has been to keep us connected around a common worship experience by making it available online. We did that.
Now that some of us have begun connecting in person again, I want to remember those who continue to connect online. I do look forward to the day our in person venue is filled with people singing again. But I hope that we will always see online as more than just an "alternative" to the "real" gathering. May it continue to connect us with people who wouldn't otherwise be able to, whether separated by quarantine or by geographical distance.
But why connect? Why connect with each other? Why connect with anyone?
Two scriptures come to mind:
Philippians 2:1-4 (NIV)
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
And Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
We need to connect! And the gift we've received the last couple months is the reminder of what we already knew: It's good to be together. But take away the possibility of gathering and we tend to find other ways to connect. It's human to do so. And it's Christian to do so.
Why do we connect?
Do you know anyone who needs any of those things? Try to connect with them.
Or perhaps you notice what's been missing in your own life. Or perhaps it reminds you of something that I didn't think to list. The thing is, don't neglect connecting.
I know it's hard right now, but do what you can to connect. People need you. And you need them. Connect in person if you can, or by phone, text, email, or video conference. Pray together, talk together, laugh together, hang out together if you can. Just be together and connect as people and as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
Until we meet again,
History will show that Sarasota Community Church went ten Sundays without meeting in person, from March 15 through May 17.
And I trust that it will also show how resilient the Church is, and how being Church is about way more than whether we get to "go to church" or not.
And yet the Spirit longs for fellowship and this is good. Something in us pulls us toward each other, whether in large gatherings or in small gatherings.
Last week some of us have started to meet again in small gatherings. It was good to see each other in person again.
Now, this coming Sunday, May 24, we are opening our auditorium again for the large gathering. If I didn't feel confident that we can meet safely at Church, I wouldn't open the doors yet. But I believe that we can meet safely if we do it thoughtfully.
So, effective this Sunday, not only does "Grace happen here," now "Space happens here." Be prepared to observe distancing protocol and follow the signs, and you will help keep it safe for everyone.
The tricky thing about this infectious disease is that you can't see it. So we have to assume it will be among us.
That doesn't mean we should live in fear of it. For me I just try to assume that the person I want to hug or shake hands with just had an infected person do the same thing to them. I'm not judging the person as unclean. I'm just realizing that I don't know who just violated their space. And you don't know who just violated mine. So let's just keep our space.
So as I keep saying, instead of shaking hands or hugging, just pat your heart as you say what you want to say. It's a bit awkward at first. Sure, it feels forced. But it works. Or you can wave or nod or whatever comes naturally to you. Just don't touch.
I believe that with these precautions we can meet safely at Church. And if we later learn that someone was there who tests positive, we don't have to wonder whether they came close to us, because we know that we kept our distance from everybody. And we also know that the facility is being disinfected each week.
So with those things in place, I believe we can meet safely at Church. Doors will open at 9:30 for a 10AM service. Hope to see you there.
On the other hand, many of us should not come to the campus yet.
Those who have any symptoms should stay home and watch online. Really. Err on the side of caution.
And those who have weakened immune systems should do the same. Really. Please don't risk it. Let's roll this out slowly. Don't rush. Let us come to you as we have been.
I realize this may feel like we are "meeting without you." But believe me, you will be near our hearts as we gather. If there's anything we've learned in the past ten weeks, it's that "online church" is a legitimate way to gather. So we will continue to acknowledge that.
Thank you for your prayers and patience during this time. Crisis often brings the worst out in people, and I just need to say that this church has been easy to lead! I believe God is filling us with love joy and peace to fill Sarasota with love joy and peace by sowing the hope of the gospel into every relationship.
A reopening of our doors may be a milestone in some regards. It's the question of the day: "When are you reopening?" Even though we can now answer that question with "May 24," it quickly becomes apparent that it's just a change of venue.
If this change of venue allows you to invite unchurched or dechurched people, please invite them. And please continue to use our online church to do the same. We are living among so many people who have so little love joy or peace in their lives, and we have such a gift to give. So whether safely at home or safely at church, let's be the Church!
I'm so glad to live here in Florida where it's hot and humid and sunny and beautiful. I love it.
And I guess the virus hates it! And that means some of our freedoms are being restored. We're not letting our guard down, but as we continue to follow the guidelines, they give us permission to meet. (Sorry northern friends!)
To be clear, we are not meeting in person this Sunday.
But I do think we're very close. Like, very close.
Now, if that makes you nervous for any reason, please don't come. Keep watching online. There's no shame in that. Like I keep saying, each of us should decide for ourselves whether the guidelines restrict us or give us freedom. When we open the church again it will be for those who can reasonable attend. But we also have some who shouldn't be out right now. So, if you're not well or if you have a weakened immune system, please continue to shelter in place. We will continue to stream our services at sarasotacommunity.online.church as we have been. I don't see this changing.
But for those who are able, start preparing your heart to gather again. Start imagining a Sunday morning where you get ready before church instead of after it. (Haha.) Start getting ready, because that's what our staff is doing. I'm not ready to say when we're opening -- not yet -- but I think it'll be soon.
Our goal is to create an experience where everyone not only is safe, but everyone feels safe. This is prudent to health, but also to hospitality.
And of course no handshakes or hugs. In fact, even if you feel good about hugging and shaking hands I'm asking all of us to go the extra mile in creating a safe experience for those who feel most threatened by gathering.
Just resist the urge to hug and shake hands. For some of us that feels rude, so I'd like to recommend something that I learned from a pastor friend of mine (Tyler Hartford, who pastors some of own our winter residents in Indiana). He learned it from another culture where it was just their way. And I think it's beautiful.
It shows affection and honor and warmth. It touches the heart. And it does that by touching your own heart! That's the gesture.
When we greet each other, let's just put our hand to our heart:
"So good to see you."
"So nice to meet you."
No hugs or handshakes. You can touch the other person's heart by just touching your own.
"I missed you."
"How are you doing?"
"How can I be praying for you."
Start trying it on for size. I think you'll like it. Let's see if it can become our preferred greeting.
I can't wait to see everybody. The Spirit calls us to fellowship. And love also calls us to prudence even in our zeal. I appreciate your prayers for wisdom and discernment, not only for these decisions, but always. It is the prayer of my heart.
See you soon,
How well do you know your neighbors?
Do you know their names? Can you name their joys? Do you know their sorrows, and what fills them with anxiety, or gives them a sense of peace?
Years ago, when we planted a church in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, we were led in a series of "Prayer Walks" through the neighborhoods we were hoping to reach. And we were given a principle that sticks with me to this day: When you pray onsite you pray with insight.
As Wendy and I walked those streets, praying conversationally with our eyes open and as if Jesus was walking with us, we would pass a house with kids toys and pray with insight: "Lord, we pray for the children in this house... We pray for the parents..." And we would walk by a house with a old beater in the driveway and could pray, "Lord, provide for their needs. Answer their prayers. Give them financial wisdom. Keep that car running for them." When you pray onsite you pray with insight.
Here in Sarasota I sometimes do prayer drives, even taking side streets on my way to some place so that I can pray through the neighborhoods. I try not to look suspicious (ha!) but I pay attention to the needs I see, praying onsite with insight. When I notice a blue tarp on someone's roof it gives me a sense of what they would like me to pray for. When I see a $50,000 car in front of a $200,000 house, it gives me a sense of what to pray for. When I see a boat that hasn't been touched for 20 years, or a couple brand new Jet Skis out front, it gives me insight about who might live there, and what they have experienced or are experiencing.
Many of us have taken to walking our neighborhoods during this shut in. What an opportunity to pray with insight. Pay attention and pray with intention. Open your eyes with an open heart and you will see the needs: A lawn that's overgrown. A car that hasn't moved in a long time. A car that's never home. Five cars in one house. Kids toys. A wheelchair ramp. Christmas decorations in May. You may guess wrong about the situation (maybe they just like Christmas), but even if the details are wrong, it still gives you a sense about what to pray for.
This is true even for those of us who still report to work, or can't get out and walk the neighborhood. Pray for the people in front of you at the stoplight. Pray for the people you're scrolling through on social media. Pay attention to the people you see and you will see needs. When you pray onsite, you pray with insight.
The Lord calls us to be a people of prayer.
Today, this week, next week, next month... As you have opportunity, do good to all people. Start by praying for them. This is where your heart of compassion finds clarity. And this is where anything else you do tangibly is empowered by the hand of God.
That Sarasota might be filled with love joy and peace!
Today we enter Phase One of the governor's Reopen Florida plan. For us that means we are planning to bring the worship team back together to lead worship from our worship center. I hope everyone finds encouragement in that, even if we don't meet together this Sunday.
We are watching how this first week of Phase One goes before deciding when we will reopen our campus to public activities. Phase One calls for "strict distancing protocol," and then Phase Two calls for "moderate distancing protocol." Meeting under Phase One poses some difficulty. Meeting under Phase Two, not so much. Again, we are not living in fear, but choosing to be cooperative, and exercise prudence, believing it in no way jeopardizes our faith to do so. But we are also looking forward to gathering again. To be together and encourage each other is part of the vitality of our faith. We will meet again soon, Lord willing. I'll let you know.
As we prepare, I want you to pray with me about the opportunities in front of us. It's like a reset button has been pushed, and we get to decide what we do now.
Think about how many times God's people have gotten to start over. The most obvious is the Flood where Noah and his family got to replant humanity. But even before that, when Cain killed Able, he was sent away to a new land to start over. And before that, when Adam and Eve sinned, they were sent out of the garden to start over.
But still Noah is the one we think about. God said he was tired of contending with humanity and its sin so he pressed the reset button. Took a few samples of what he had created and wiped everything else out. Then he put those samples on a mountain top and said, "Start over." And one of the first things we see is Noah getting drunk.
A few generations later and Abraham was called to leave his land and go start over. He had kids and they had kids and they had kids, and they all ended up in Egypt where they had more and more kids. They ended up enslaved to the Egyptians so God brought Moses to push a reset button for them. They had opportunity to go straight into the Promised Land, but they balked, so they wandered the wilderness until that whole generation had died.
Then God pushed the reset button again, and brought them into the Promised Land. They established themselves but during that time there was no king and everyone did as they thought best. And it wasn't best. They had priests and judges, but they sinned and sinned and sinned.
Eventually God pushed the reset button and brought a king, and another king, and another. The kings were good, then bad, then good, then bad, and so on and so on. There has never been a time that God's people were not encumbered by sin.
Finally, God pushed the reset button by sending his son -- by coming in the flesh. When he conquered death he pushed the biggest reset button of them all. And here we are living by faith, no longer under the tutelage of the Law, and no longer enslaved by our fear of death.
But even after Jesus, God has continued to push the reset button for us. Pentecost, the scattering of the Church by persecution, the evangelism of the Gentiles, the missionary journeys of Paul, the development of Christendom. In fact, if we look all the way back to the Flood we can see a major reset roughly every 500 years: Noah (2500 BC), Abraham (2000), Moses (1500), David (1000), the Exiles return (500), Jesus/The Church (0), The First East-West Schism and Reconciliation (500AD), the Great East-West Schism (1000), the Reformation (1500), and now here we are (2000). With each one we can look back at things that were lost and gained, some of it negative and some of it positive. And each was opportunity to do a new thing.
I don't think this Coronavirus Pandemic is on par with the Flood or the Reformation. But it is opportunity to do a new thing. Even if it can be hard to let go of old things, there's something refreshing about a new start.
This is on my mind and in my prayers, and I invite you to consider it with me: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses," meaning, people who have been faithful through time, "let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV)
Pray for clear discernment about this. It's the right question to be asking. And if you get any sense of godly conviction or passion about it, like what you would be most energized to throw yourself into as the mission for your life in these times, let me know what you think by emailing me.
With love and faith,
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.