Yesterday we reopened our campus for worship. It was nice.
Of course not everyone could attend in person, and then our streaming platform had tech issues, so I wanted to bring everyone up to speed.
I spoke on "What Most People (Still) Get Wrong About Worship." If you didn't get to see it or want to review it, you can watch the whole service here, or watch the stand alone teaching in a more succinct format here.
The message is dear to my heart, and it influenced a decision I made to reverse our worship service. That's what I want to explain here.
After Mike Christner welcomed us, I introduced the topic of my sermon, and then led everyone in the doxology.
Usually the doxology is sung at the end of the service as a response. It concludes with a distinctive "Ahhhhhhhmennnnnn!" I actually like it there, but yesterday we started with it. I wanted to jar our thinking a bit, and remind us of this truth that all worship is response.
So after singing the doxology, I talked about how most people still relate to worship with misunderstanding. And the biggest misunderstanding is this:
"Worship isn't for you; Worship is from you."
I opened scripture and told about my unique perspective as someone who has spent countless hours on a stage making music in front of countless crowds of people, both in secular settings, and in church settings.
I confessed my own complicity as a pastor who has made decisions that turned the worship service into a show, and inadvertently taught people that worship is for them.
I talked about marital intimacy as a powerful metaphor of Christian worship. Not sure I've ever heard that illustration before. At least not in church.
And I told about how when I recently prayed for God to light me on fire with inspiration and zeal, he answered by reminding me of a tiki torch fail from several years ago. I said that if you're relying on worship services to light you on fire, and all you're getting is a few sparks with a little warm glow that dies out during the week, you're probably dealing with a wick that saturated with the wrong things.
I won't reteach the message here. I'm just asking you to lean into it. I really don't want it to be a "one and done" message. It must become who we are. (Like I say, if you haven't heard it yet, stop reading this and go spend 20 minutes with it here.)
So yesterday I spent time baring my heart and mind about what we tend to get wrong in worship. Then I invited everyone to pray. And we just took time to pray.
As I've taught recently from Acts 2:42, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."
So we prayed.
Then we sang.
And it was tender.
When Wendy and I talked about it at home, I told her I wasn't as tired as I usually am after a Sunday morning. That's when I realized that I had been relaxed all morning. I had experienced no anxiety about whether people would like our worship and stay or get bored and leave. I just wanted to open scripture to increase our understanding. I just wanted to call us all to worship as a responsive love. And I just wanted to create space for us to pray and become tender before the Lord. And to do it together.
And that's what happened. Amen.
This week we're going to keep the reversed order. We're going to start with the doxology. Come ready to worship God as response. Just don't come thinking it's for you. Come remembering it is from you.
I mentioned above how God answered my prayer. I don't always hear word for word from God. But this was pretty clear to me, and I believe it's not just for me, so I'll leave it here for you to consider.
This is from my prayer journal. I prayed:
“Lord, restore unto me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Cause your fire of inspiration and zeal to fall from heaven and baptize me anew.”
And God answered me:
“Have I not allowed your life to become dry for this purpose? How can you wick the pure oil of my anointing when you are dripping in the synthetic anointings of this world and its patterns? But I am taking your feet out of that. And I already have. But do not be afraid of the desert. I can bring refreshment from a rock and nourishment from the morning dew. Can I not put a roof over your head, even one with a million stars?
"My fire fell and filled the temple. It also fell and danced on the heads of my disciples, my new temple! But today my fire falls on wet wicks. It ignites a few hairs and you get excited. But I want you to become all flame!”
Like I say, that message is not only for me, it is for all who are listening. And I invite you to contemplate it as we allow God to refine our worship together. Who will we become?
As we explore a "reversed" worship service, let it reverse your thinking: Worship is a response. It's not for us. It's from us.
We were one of the first churches to close when news of the pandemic began to coalesce. Given the information we were hearing, and the size and demographic of our winter crowd, it was the responsible decision.
We closed for ten weeks. But then we were one of the first churches in Sarasota to re-open.
Then after five weeks, the Florida Surgeon General requested again that people limit gatherings over 50 so we closed again.
Other churches started opening soon after that. We didn't. And now, after nine weeks, most of the churches around us have been open for weeks. I don't know actual numbers but it seems we are one of the last to reopen.
I want to give clarity about that.
My heart all along has been to cooperate with those who bear the burden of leading our city and state, that their service might be a joy and not a burden.
This is an application of scripture's mandate about following our church leaders, but I believe in principle it applies to all leaders: "Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you." (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
Likewise, as one charged with making decisions that affect this church, I want to carry out that responsibility with diligence.
As I said last week, I don't believe there is a right or wrong decision about whether churches meet in person or not. I am confident that meeting in homes is not disobedient to scripture's call to not forsake meeting together.
In fact, it's possible that our preference for gathering somewhere other than our homes is more akin to forsaking meeting together.
But that's another post. :)
That said, most of us miss gathering don't we? I miss seeing you. I miss singing together with you. I miss the encouragement of just being together with you. At the very least we miss our memories of what it used to be like to get together.
And yet, if you were one of the 90 or so who met again for those five weeks in May and June, you likely remember how conflicted your feelings were.
There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm for meeting again, but there was some sorrow and timidity in meeting again.
Part of that is just a natural response to what social distancing does. Yeah, we all know that social distancing is manufactured -- that it's not really an indication about whether people like us or not -- but still, we learned at a young age how to respond when people keep their distance from us. We keep our distance from them. Physically. Emotionally. We shrink back. We become quiet. We avoid eye contact. We fade away.
It's hard to meet joyfully when we can't engage each other socially.
Now, I don't want to overcommit on that. There was joy. We even met new people who started coming to our church because we were one of the first to reopen. Wonderful people.
But many who I was hoping to see stayed home for the obvious reasons.
As I've said, we'll reopen again. But it's been my desire that when we do meet again I want it to be with joy. I want the room to buzz with enthusiasm, not hum with uncertainty.
I'm still looking for the right timing on that.
Part of that is I don't want to be "yes and then no." I don't want to just follow whatever opinion is trending on social media, riding the waves of public opinion up and down, back and forth, starting and stopping, herking and jerking. It's important to me that we be a non-anxious presence in this. Also, that we don't "condemn ourselves by what we approve."
And so, the staff's counsel is that we wait and pay attention to what happens when our local schools reopen. So far it has not been without challenges for Manatee public schools, as well as our own Sarasota Christian School.
But they are meeting, and we are watching. And almost all of the people have not gotten sick.
And next week we'll be watching the Sarasota County Schools to see what happens. Not anxiously. Just trying to learn. And I personally believe that almost all of the people will not get sick. That's my own personal bias.
But all that said, an underlying consideration for me in keeping our campus closed has been a spiritual sense that it is serving a purpose unique to our congregation in a way that has nothing to do with the virus.
Like I said here,
and one more (the one where I said the church is closed for good) here.
And so we continue to pray for God to move among us. Again, this isn't as much to do with the virus, as it is about what God wants to do among us.
Join me in praying this simple prayer: "Lord, what would you have us learn during this time?"
And lean into yesterday's teaching where I explained four things we need to be devoting ourselves to. It totally applies to this larger conversation. Take 19 minutes to watch it again here.
But I'm also sensing that it's time to gather for worship, even if it's not yet time to gather weekly for worship, so...
We are planning a special evening service for extended worship, prayer, communion, and inspiration: Saturday, September 5th, at 6pm.
It's Labor Day Weekend. Let's plan to worship together and encourage each other as part of our festivities.
Mark your calendars. (But mark it in pencil. All plans are in pencil these days. See above.)
My heart is that we would gather to encourage and strengthen each other. What do you think? Good idea? You in?
When I see Christian leaders demanding their right to gather publicly as if it's a fundamental necessity, I'm a bit embarrassed.
I'm partly embarrassed to be associated with what I believe is a short-sighted view of worship. But more poignantly, I'm embarrassed for how it sounds to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where meeting publicly isn't even an option. I would venture that for them to meet at all is considerably more faithful than for us to exercise our rights by having an outdoor praise concert, or an open door sermon in our building.
This isn't to say I'm against meeting publicly, or opening our buildings. Not at all. I'm personally good with meeting. In fact, we're planning to have a night of worship coming up here shortly and I'm really looking forward to it.
But for a variety of reasons I haven't opened SCC to regular gatherings yet. And I must admit the awkwardness: while we are voluntarily doing church online in a state where we have permission to meet onsite, people in other states are willing to go to jail over not being allowed to meet onsite. Here we are, saying, "Let's just meet online for a time," and there they are, saying, "It is fundamentally necessary for us to meet onsite!"
I'm not picking a fight with anyone. And I understand the concern about losing our American rights. I get that. But that's not the conversation I'm having here. My concern is bigger than that.
I believe the increased emphasis on demanding our right to "do church" is reinforcing an already weakened view of what it means to "be Church."
Gathering publicly is about doing church. But no law can keep us from being Church.
We need to stop focusing on doing church and start focusing on being Church.
Again, I don't want to be misunderstood here. Gathering publicly is a wonderful privilege. I'm thankful for it. Let's meet publicly whenever we can. And, as American citizens, let's be good stewards of the voice democracy gives us in helping lead the country. I personally cast my own vote towards freedom whenever I can. But let's not hold up the Constitution and Bill of Rights as authoritative commentaries on scripture. It is not holy writ.
(I've taught about Kingdom allegiance recently, so I'll refrain from saying more here.)
But isn't it interesting that prior to Covid, we who are now willing to fight for our right to worship, increasingly exercised that as the right to not worship? Or the right to worship on our own, whenever we felt like it?
I was talking with a school teacher recently who said that people used to view education as a privilege and so they were willing to work very hard for it. But now they see it as a right, so they give up as soon as it gets hard.
When we see worship as a right, we stop seeing it as a privilege.
We give up on worship easily because we just want it to be easy. And apparently "easy" means "when I'm not tired" or "when I don't have something else to do" or "when I'm tired of being cooped up in my home during a government mandated shut-in."
For decades, worship attendance in the U.S. has been declining across the board. Many "regular church goers" go half of the time. Some would say monthly is all the connection they need. Some stopped going to church in person years ago and only watch online. And some don't even watch online.
For those of us (like myself) who are at church if the doors are open, it feels like they've left the faith, doesn't it? But the reality is, some still read their Bibles daily and have spiritual fellowship with others organically. Some have a very active prayer life and devote themselves to serving people in need, while being directed by portions of scripture they memorized a long time ago.
What do you think about that? Can you be a good Christian and not go to Church every week? No doubt you have an opinion. And now that we've all "skipped church" multiple weeks in a row, I wonder if your opinion has changed. Does going to church make us the Church?
Let's be clearheaded about this.
Gathering publicly is not fundamentally necessary to gathering in Jesus' name.
All throughout the world, Christians gather privately and faithfully in Jesus' name. And the power of God is there in their midst.
No gawking media.
No demonstration of rights.
No social media posts being shared.
No publicity of any kind.
No dividing up by preferred political solutions.
None of that.
Just people gathering as followers of Jesus to pray together, study the scriptures together (if they have them), sing some songs together (quietly), and break bread together. Just two or three plus Jesus, because they have gathered in his name. (Matthew 18:20)
Is two or three plus Jesus not enough?
The Western Church has fallen in love with "the worship service" as if a crowd amplifies the Lord's presence. It doesn't.
It intensifies our experience. Sure. It amplifies our voice. Sure. It proclaims the gospel and declares the praises of God's people. Yes.
But in no way does a crowd amplify the Lord's presence.
If we're not clearheaded about this, we will "throw our pearls to the swine." Gathering publicly is not essential to being church. It's just how we're used to doing church. And I believe the caffeinated energy of crowds and celebrity camouflages the fact that many who do church have never been converted from their worldliness. They are good at doing church but with all their being, they are still worldly. But man, they sure are good at doing church.
Like I keep saying, this is our opportunity to discover what it really means to be Church.
But it's going to take intentionality — the kind of intentionality that we don't need to exercise when the highlight of our faith is doing church. Because the reality is that for most people, doing church really means letting other people do the stuff, so we can just show up and enjoy it.
I don't mean to sound jaded. I am just calling out what I believe is prophetic impulse: It is time for us to stop doing church and start being the Church.
And, like I taught yesterday, this is all about becoming Followers of the Way.
Go watch it again. Consider it. Become an apprentice. And share the message with anyone else in your circle who is just waiting till "we can start doing church again." It's got to be about way more than just doing church again.
Lord willing, I plan to teach this week about the need to be in community with a few others who are devoted to the same things.
I dare you to invite a few people over to your house for worship this Sunday.
Invite two other households if you have the room, whether that's two people or four, or even more. Setup the TV ahead of time. (We just plug a laptop into our smart TV via HDMI cable.)
Enjoy their company. Watch the service together. Then, at the end, take the lead in discussing the questions. And ask the question: "How can we be praying for each other?" Then do that. And plan ahead to share a meal together. Eat in or go out, doesn't matter. But let it start right there in your own home where you are learning to be the Church!
Who would be the most natural for you to invite? Start with them.
Be the Church.
When we go to somebody for help in overcoming something, it's often just to get a different perspective.
The counselor or therapist looks at our problem from a different perspective and, through questions, helps us to see things differently. And through experience with seeing what has helped others is able to prescribe what can help us.
The primary care physician looks at our symptoms from the perspective of having seen many people with the same symptoms, and then uses that perspective to decide whether we should be concerned, and to prescribe either medication or behavior modification that has the best likelihood of fixing the problem.
We go to the mechanic for perspective, the contractor for perspective, the accountant for perspective, the consultant for perspective, etc.
As a minister I am called upon to give perspective. My perspective as a preacher and teacher is to remind everyone how God has spoken into our circumstances. I open the scriptures to "correct, rebuke, and encourage." (2 Timothy 4:2) And my perspective as a pastor is to look at presenting problems and give spiritual direction, not always to alleviate the symptoms, but always to correct the root causes of whatever spiritual dysfunctions I see. Again, this is from my perspective.
As I was studying for last week's message (Encouragement in These Last Days) I was living with the perplexity I hear in many people as they ask, "What next?!" Like what bad thing is going to happen next?
Just last week (feels like forever ago) there was the explosion in Beirut, reports of earthquakes all over, a hurricane, and a tornado in PA. And that was on top of the ongoing pandemic, riots, political unrest, and all the posturing of a contentious election on the horizon. It just seems like we keep getting hit with "one more thing." I even learned last week that hundreds of elephants have been dying in Botswana and no one knows why. "One more thing."
As I pondered it, something felt familiar. I looked back a few years to gain perspective, and I found a message I preached on September 24, 2017. In it I addressed the same sense of perplexity we were experiencing then. See if you remember it. I said,
"Five weeks ago we had a Solar eclipse.
"Six days later Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston.
"Two days later North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan.
"Ten days later an 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico.
"Two days after that Hurricane Irma hit us.
"Five days later North Korea launched another ballistic missile over Japan.
"Four days after that a 7.1 magnitude earthquake crushed Mexico City.
"Two days after that Hurricane Maria swamped the Caribbean Islands again.
"The day after that we had what seemed like a monsoon here.
"The day after that another earthquake in Mexico.
"And the whole time wildfires were consuming 2 million acres in the western United States.
"And, to top it all off, Christians were saying the world was going to end September 23rd. Otherwise known as 'yesterday.'"
At that time we were all asking "WHAT’S GOING ON?!?!" People were declaring unequivocally that "THE END IS NEAR!!!" Many were living in a state of constant alarm. I had forgotten a lot of those things, but now I remember them. Because it was my job to give perspective then, and it's my job to give perspective now.
I said then that many of us were "emotionally multitasking," going back and forth between “WE'RE ALL DOOMED!” and just watching the latest kitten videos. Today, instead of kitten videos, it's probably trying out the latest dance moves on TikTok or whatever.
I said then what I say now. And this is why you don’t catch me being alarmed about stuff.
I believe God wants his Church to be a non-anxious presence in the community. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned. But it does mean that we shouldn't be alarmed.
We need to remember that worry is a sin. I don't say that to shame you. I say it to free you. Don't give into it any more than you'd give in to lust or hatred. Confess it as sin and resist it. And then replace it with longing.
Worry looks forward in fear. Longing looks forward in anticipation. Hope holds all things in eternal perspective. This is foundational to our faith.
These are crazy times — and many say it’s evidence that we are in the End Times. Sure. I prefer the biblical phrase "the Last Days." It is less of a commitment to an eschatalogical framework as simply a faith statement that Jesus is coming back. The evidence for that is not how bad things are. The evidence is that Jesus left and hasn’t returned yet! When Jesus ascended into the sky (Acts 1:9) it was with a declaration that we were now in the Last Days. He would soon come back to get us.
So far that "soon" is 2000 years old. In other words, it's a really old "soon." It's a "soon" that has gone through 80 generations so far. Yet believers in each of those generations believed the Lord's return was imminent. And that's the better word: Imminent. That's what Jesus wanted his apostles to believe, and it's what he wants us to believe. So we believe. Eagerly.
Jesus is coming back soon. It could be today. Or he might delay another day. And even if he delays another generation, we're okay with it. We don't get to know when because we don't have to know when in order to be ready when. We just have to be ready now.
Like I said in this week's message, I’m prepared to see him coming on the clouds! But I’m also prepared to steward this life for another several decades if given the opportunity. I hope to live a long life, but more than that, I hope to live life longing for the Lord’s return, so that when he appears, I leap to my feet in eager anticipation.
I do fear that some feel like the bus is careening off the cliff and they're just trying to figure out whether it’s better to go along for the ride, or jump off before impact. If I can give this counsel from my perspective: Don’t jump off. The end will come soon enough.
Instead of fearing, start longing. Instead of being alarmed, just be encouraged. Focus on that, and soon enough, Jesus will return, and your whole being will erupt in a joyful shout at the glory of is appearing!
It's good to long for heaven. And for now, it's good to long patiently. As long as the Lord waits patiently, we must give witness to the hope of our gospel for all who receive him. I am encouraged by the imminence of the Lord’s return, and yet I count each day a sacred opportunity to encourage others to give their heart fully to Jesus.
Be encouraged today with this perspective: Jesus is coming soon. And Today is the Day of Salvation.
I knew it when I wrote it. Some would only read the headline. And the rumors would fly.
Today I learned of a rumor and it gives me opportunity to make the point again, so I smile and thank God for the opportunity. And I thank God that people care so much about SCC.
The phrase? "We're closed for good."
Like I say, I knew it was provocative, so I clarified it in the third sentence. I said, "I don't mean that like it sounds." And then I went on to explain what I meant, that God is using this temporary shut down for good. Meaning, let's look for the good that God wants to bring out of this! (I'll resist the urge to make the point again here. Just go read the full article.)
Nevertheless, some people think we have closed the church permanently. Let me correct that with two statements:
We don't know yet when we'll open weekly. We're taking many things into consideration. But we do hope to hold a public worship event in the next several weeks, even if it's not yet prudent to resume weekly gatherings. (More info to come.)
So please, if you hear anyone saying we've closed the church permanently, have them read this. And then have them read the original post. It's still a message that needs to be heard.
I wrote in last week’s blog that we are “closed for good” — meaning God is doing good in us through this trial. That is his way.
I don’t know when we’ll open the campus again, but because of this trial, I have opened my heart to something better than “going to church,” and I invite you to do the same.
I believe God is purifying his Church by burning off the complexities and confidences that we’ve allowed to clutter the gospel and confuse faithfulness. Proverbs 23:1-8 is jarring but speaks wisdom to us in this time:
"When you sit to dine with a ruler...do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive. Do not wear yourself out to get rich; do not trust your own cleverness. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle. Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. 'Eat and drink,' he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments."
The Western Church has long dined with rulers and craved their delicacies. We have worn ourselves out to attract and assimilate people. We have trusted in our own cleverness and have “cast but a glance” at effectiveness, only to see it “fly off” time and time again. We have eaten the food of a begrudging host and are vomiting up what we have eaten.
Every disappointment we face in life and in ministry should remind us of the temptation of doing things by our own cleverness and for our own benefit. Such disappointments are for our good because they bring us face to face with truth.
I am renewed in my conviction that it is not our job to “grow the Church.” Jesus already told us that he would build his Church. Our job is to proclaim Christ, not our church brand, and to teach people about Jesus, not about us.
If only God would call all congregations back to this simple and pure desire! If only we would renew our love! If only we would strengthen and encourage each other to remain true to the Lord! If only we would remind each other that being the Church is about living in Christ, not going to church or promoting a church brand!
Each week I give the blessing to “go be the Church” and by that I mean to “go be followers of Jesus” together. That's it. And “together” means together with all believers everywhere, wherever you find believers! And "together" means friendship with people you can pray with and encourage to remain true to the Lord. This is much more significant than belonging to a "big church" or a "small group." It's belonging to Jesus.
I believe "Church" is getting ready to look different. It already looks different, but I believe this is opportunity to do a new thing. In fact, this is my confidence and hope, that as we currently rest from onsite gathering, God is calling us to something better than just onsite gathering.
This is good, and it’s for God’s purpose. We are being shaken so that what is unworthy will fall off. And when that has happened, let it be true that whatever remains is simple and pure and worthy of his praise.
To that end, I invite you to prayerfully consider: How best might we “fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with Great Compassion and Great Conviction” in this new era? Not as a new program to try, but as a simpler, more pure way of being the Church.
Thank you for your support!
Thank you for continuing to honor God with your finances! May you be blessed for your Generosity! We continue to receive checks from many in the mail, or by text, or online. (Please note that we now have an option for those who give online to pay the transaction fee incurred by the church so that all of your offerings goes to the church itself.)
A few weeks ago we ran a fundraiser to help a widow in our community get a new roof. We chose to use GoFundMe because we wanted to connect as many as possible to the opportunity, believing that not only is it a gift to the recipient, but the opportunity for people to show compassion is itself a gift. We had a goal of $4,000 and exceeded by nearly $1,000 which we will apply to similar projects. We are excited to coordinate tangible help like this!
Spread the Word
The gospel provides hope that this world desperately needs. And God's wisdom speaks so profoundly into the struggles we all face. It's my joy to open scripture each week against the backdrop of current events. And I'm encouraged by many who say they are encouraged.
I want to explain this hope to as many people as possible, so I make the weekly teachings available on YouTube. But just putting a video on YouTube doesn't help people find it. I need your help.
Not everyone is called to preach or teach, but if you have social media, you have the ability to spread the word. (And if you've been encouraged by the weekly sermons, others will be encouraged too!)
So here's what I'm asking you to do:
Together, we can sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship!
Call to Prayer
As staff and overseers, we have been walking the church parking lot regularly to pray for our congregation, and for Sarasota. I believe we have only begun to see what God wants us to see in this, and I am filled with anticipation and enthusiasm about it.
He is good, loving, and powerful. And he is not perplexed or indecisive.
And so, as I wait on God, even though I am disturbed by the destruction and ungodliness I see in the world, I am not disquieted. As I measure the days, I am filled with righteous indignation, yet I trust in the Lord and am filled with love. I do not know the future, but I am confident that we must apply ourselves personally to fulfilling “the Great Commandment and the Great Commission with Great Compassion and Great Conviction.” And I believe it will look different than what we have done in the past.
I believe and pray that in these days, the name of Jesus and the grace of the gospel will become more eminent as the judgment of God becomes increasingly imminent. This is our confidence and our urgency.
May the Lord “fill the world with love joy and peace as we sow the hope of the gospel into every relationship.”
With sober conviction and hope,
We're closed for good.
I say that in faith.
Of course, I don't mean that like it sounds. What I mean is that our campus is closed for a time, but it's closed with an expectation that good will come of it. We don't know when it will reopen, but until then it's "closed for good," even if not for long. And even if for long.
We expect that even in this, God is making things new.
I continue to have the sense that the field we've sown and reaped for 70 years, is being forced to lie fallow. I'm not a farmer so I'll let the dictionary explain what that means: fal·low |ˈfalō | adjective | (of farmland) plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.
I asked the staff yesterday, "In what ways are we better for being closed?" The easiest answer was a renewal in our appreciation of fellowship. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Then I asked, "In what ways are we worse for being closed?" This was just as easy to answer: difficulty of fellowship.
And this is no surprise. When I polled you all a several weeks ago about what you miss most, you said overwhelmingly: Fellowship. And that's the hardest thing to do online. And to be candid, I wonder if it is a pastor's job to get people to fellowship together. It certainly isn't my job to get people to eat or sleep.
At some point, as adults, we put food in our own mouths, we put ourselves to bed, and we put ourselves in proximity with others to enjoy their company. Nevertheless, many have become accustomed to the local church being their social hub, and when it's not, some of us feel a bit lost.
So yes, fellowship.
But there are other answers to the "better/worse" questions. And not just for us as A church, but for THE Church -- the larger Body of Christ of which we are just a cell, along with all the other churches. And that's where much of my thoughts are these days.
In what ways are we "closed for good?"
Something about this shut down seems to me like God is preparing to do something totally new. And it seems like it's something that needs the "land" to rest first. Like, it's time for a great harvest, but the soil needs to become rich again. So he's causing the land to rest.
I get the thought from Leviticus 25.
1The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. 3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.
And then it calls for a double sabbath. In the 49th and 50th years the land is to spend two years at rest. And along with it, property is to be returned to its clan, slaves are to be freed, and debts are to be forgiven. It's huge.
It reads this way:
8“ ‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. 9Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. 11The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. 12For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. 13“ ‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.
Hmm. The "Year of Jubilee." A year of emancipation and restoration. I wonder why God did that. But I also wonder why we question it.
I suspect he did it because we question it. We don't trust it. We're supposed to work, to sow, to reap. But when God told his people how to live in the land, he said, "Sow and reap! But then, every seventh year, don't sow or reap! Just trust me to do the sowing and reaping! And every seventh time you do that, do it one more year for good measure, so that at least once in your lifetime you know what it is to seriously trust me to provide for you."
Sure, we could say that he said this because he understood the land's limitations and was just teaching them to be good stewards of the land. But we could also say that he understood their own limitations (and temptations to self-reliance) and was teaching them to be good stewards of their own hearts.
I recently finished reading 1st Chronicles and 2nd Chronicles where it describes the up and down, back and forth loyalty of God's people. A good king is followed by a bad king is followed by a good king is followed by a bad king. And sometimes the good king becomes the bad king. It's very disconcerting. Finally, at the end of it, God causes his people to be forcefully carried away from the Promised Land he gave them, and back into captivity again, this time to Babylon. He warned them time and time again, and they didn't respond, so he followed through.
It's summarized in the last chapter, 2 Chronicles 36:
15The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. 17He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. 18He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
20He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power.
And then it says this curious thing:
21The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
Why? Was God really so concerned about the soil? Wasn't he more concerned that his people had not followed him? That they had not trusted him?
Yes, the latter. And yet he honored his own command by following through on the former. And the land was at rest while they were in captivity, all as a testimony against their unwillingness to trust him.
I have a strong sense that what the world is undergoing right now is a time of preparation. It may even be a time of God following through on his warnings. I'll let you talk to God about that for more insight. But for me, my thoughts go to isolation, competition, and an overconfidence in strategy.
If those things were to happen, we would celebrate that we were "closed for good," right? I'm just telling you that I believe in faith with hope that we are "closed for good."
Of course, no matter how you cut it, the Church is still very, very open. In fact, we haven't closed a single day. Not for a single minute. You can't close the Church anymore than you can close a field. It is a field. And we are the Church. But both the field and the Church can honor God with a sabbath rest.
My encouragement to you is to receive your rest. Restore your faith. Renew your energy. Let God take care of you. And trust that God is not done with "ripe fields" but rather he is preparing the fields for a harvest greater than the overworked fields can currently produce.
Join me in that prayer.
In yesterday's message I talked about how I try to read scripture every day. I said that it's a practice that has fed me and kept me on track for 28 years.
This isn't a new concept, but it can be intimidating. For many, their heart says yes but they don't know where to start or what to do.
So today I'm going to tell you what I've found helpful.
In fact, I dare say that this "daily" habit has helped me more in my faith than any other, coupled with the habit of regular contemplation.
But first, before I explain my plan, let me say that there is not such a thing as an inspired reading plan, other than just the Bible itself.
And second, I must admit that nowhere in the Bible are we told to read the Bible every day. We are, however, told to meditate on it day and night. It is described as a lamp that helps us see the path. It offers wisdom, correction, guidance, all that. It makes us wise for salvation, so we follow it.
Third, we need to remember that the Bible wasn't written as a Bible. The Bible is actually a compilation of prophetic writings received over a period of 1500 years that were finally bound together as one book so we could have it all handy. And the chapters and verses weren't added until the 1500's. It makes it easier to reference things. Even if there are some cool connections and patterns in the numbers, it's the words that are significant, not the little numbers. So don't get caught up in having to read a certain number of chapters or verses. They're just there to help you find stuff.
That said, I try to read four chapters a day.
I'm not perfect at it. But it would be impossible to overstate the help that this habit has been for me. It gives me perspective. It "lights my path." There simply is no substitute for sitting in the counsel of scripture every day.
Years ago I was looking for my own Bible reading plan, and I discovered a plan to read through the Bible in a year. It took me two and half years! I read it slowly, with curiosity. I cross-referenced freely and allowed myself to use the reading plan to stimulate my interest, and then allowed God to lead me.
After that I decided that four chapters a day was a good pattern. I decided that rather than trying to read through the Bible in a set amount of time, I would just read in the Bible every day.
I divided the Bible into four sections, and since that time I have been reading one chapter a day from each section.
1. "WORSHIP & WISDOM" covers Psalms through Ecclesiastes. I let these chapters lead me in worship and teach me God's wisdom. I often refer to the teachings in these books to help me make wise decisions when my heart or mind would either be confused, or pulled sideways. I read through this section every seven months or so.
2. "THE STORY OF GOD & HIS PEOPLE" covers Genesis through Malachi (skipping those covered in the "worship and wisdom" section). These are the stories of God and his people, that lead up to Christ. Reading this in the context of the next two sections leads to some wonderful insights about what God was up to from the beginning. I read through this section once every two years.
3. "THE STORY OF JESUS & HIS CHURCH" covers Matthew through Acts. These are the stories of Jesus' life and the lives of his followers after he returned to heaven. As followers of Jesus it is critical that we get to know him in this way, and to learn how those first believers followed the leading of the Holy Spirit. I read through this section three times a year.
4. "THE LETTERS TO THE CHURCH" covers Romans through Revelation. This is where I learn from the apostles how to live out my faith. Technically the last book is not a letter, but it actually references letters to seven churches, and it makes sense to keep it in this category. I read through this section two times a year.
So I read those four chapters a day using three bookmarks and the ribbon in my Bible. When I finish one section, I start over at the beginning of that section the next day, while continuing on in the other sections. For example, here's what a few snapshots looks like:
-1 Corinthians 1 (Go to next book)
-Matthew 1 (Go to beginning of section again)
-1 John 5
-Psalm 1 (Start at beginning of section again)
This staggered pattern means that I will probably never read the same four chapters in a day. And it's amazing how often the daily readings interact in eye opening ways. Such is the nature of God's word.
So that's what I do. And I give myself plenty of freedom in it. Remember, the goal is to spend time contemplating God's word on a daily basis. And this pattern is a helpful guide. Make it a lifestyle habit and you will receive a balanced, ongoing experience of sitting under the whole counsel of scripture!
May God open up his word to you, as you devote yourself to him in this way.
Friday our daughter-in-law messaged us to see if they could come to our house for worship on Sunday. Of course the answer was YES!
Now, that may not make sense unless you know what happens behind the scenes these days. When we are not meeting onsite (when the campus is closed) the worship team records the service ahead of time, and then streams it Sunday as a simulated live event. So, even though I'm "on stage," my experience Sunday mornings is just like yours. Wendy, Bekah, and I sit on the couch and watch the service together. It's become a nice tradition these past several months. (Did I just say several months?!)
But this past Friday, Kailey asked if she and Micah and baby Kaiden could come over Sunday for worship. That sounded like a great idea! In fact, a couple weeks ago I blogged here about hoping to see that sort of thing happen!
She brought homemade cinnamon rolls and the six of us sat on the couches and watched the worship service. I can't say we were terribly disciplined about it. We tended to talk during it. Having people over is typically a social event and this felt like a social event. But I think if we were to do it more often, we would become accustomed to settling in and being present to it.
We gathered for worship. We raised our hands for the blessing. Then we started getting ready for lunch. I think that, to do it over again, I would ask if we could pray together when it was done. That would've been nice. Next time.
But yesterday we started getting ready for lunch. Then six others joined us for a total of twelve. We had invited them Friday, saying that we'd grill burgers if everyone else just brought something to share. We didn't organize it too much, we just let people bring what they wanted. And we ate good. Afterward we had some homemade cheesecake that Wendy had made the day before.
Then we all hung out for awhile, and eventually people went home. It was a good morning/afternoon.
I napped a little.
Then at 6:30pm we had some teens over for our weekly Bible study. We talked about the morning teaching, reading through the scriptures I had used, plus some. We talked about the challenges and encouragements of what it means to follow Christ in this. And we prayed for each other. We finished those conversations by probably 8pm, and then most of them just hung out talking for another couple hours.
I went upstairs to join Wendy who was on her weekly Zoom meeting with her family in Oregon and Paraguay. They do that every week for at least a couple hours. I said my heys and then came back downstairs to join the other conversation. Soon enough Wendy came back downstairs, about the same time people were heading out.
Then Bekah went up to her room, and Wendy and I spent a couple hours on the couch watching our latest TV series.
It was a full day. A very full day. Our house was full. I'm a little tired, but my heart is full.
I write all that to give a real world picture of what it can look like to open your house. Because my dream is that, even when the church building is closed, the church homes are open. And my hope is that even after the church building reopens (again), the church homes will still be open.
Most people like that idea, but don't want to do it themselves. It feels overwhelming because we imagine it as a huge thing like what Wendy and I did yesterday. And that would be overwhelming if it was every day, or if it fell to one person to make it all happen.
But I want to put you at ease here: It doesn't have to be like that. Really, it could be a 90 minute experience with no more to eat than crackers and juice. (Seriously. I'll get to that.)
If you've paid attention to my teaching for any length of time, you've heard me cite Acts 2:42. The whole paragraph goes to verse 47. It describes how the believers related to each other after the Holy Spirit was poured out onto them. Let's read it and then :
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Can you imagine if that was our experience? Picture us doing life as a family of believers, where we spend time discussing the scriptures together, and praying together, but we also just do life together. We help each other in tangible ways, we meet together regularly in whatever we relate to as "the temple courts," we eat together in our homes, we share our lives with others and they share their lives with us. We're family. Imagine that.
Again, most of us like the thought, but pull back at the implementation. We like going to church, but going to someone's home, or having them come over to ours?! We've lost that as a culture. We're intimidated by that.
To be sure, not everyone has a hospitality gift, and this certainly is opportunity for "hosts" to shine. But you don't have to be great at hosting parties to be good at having people over for worship.
In fact, I want to dumb this down so everyone can consider doing it. Here's my handy dandy step by step guide to having people over for worship. (Disclaimer: I'm not suggesting a reckless exposure to Covid. Try to embrace the heart of what I'm saying and then use your best judgment in the application of it.)
Step by Step Instructions for Opening Your Home for Worship
Parts of that may feel natural to you, and other parts may not, but none of it needs to feel forced. Just open up your home this Sunday to one or two others, maybe three. Ask them to come worship with you! And let's see what God does among us.
Who might you invite this week?
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.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.